Menopause and Your Metabolism – what you need to know

I created this blog post to open up the conversation about weight gain and menopause after listening to a very informative podcast, The Truth about Weight Gain and Menopause, by Dr. Sanjay Gupta with guest speaker Dr. Monica Christmas, director of the menopause program University of Chicago Medicine. Below I write about the whys and hows of the physical changes many women experience when heading into menopause and I’ll offer you some helpful tips from my own professional practice as well. I hope this is helpful for you!

Are you in perimenopause or menopause?

Hopefully you have been doing some homework or have talked to your health practitioner about identifying the start of your perimenopause journey or your final arrival at menopause, which is 12 months after your last period.

Did you know your hormonal fluctuations can begin in your mid to late 40s and last a few years after your last period? All in all, these shifts can last 8-10 years!  

Your body, your journey

Weight gain heading into menopause is a common occurrence, partly because your metabolism slows down, but no woman is happy to experience it. The why’s of this will be better explained below.

One comment made by Dr. Gupta is that “research has shown that women can gain a pound and a half every year during their 50s and 60s’”, but he also notes that everyone’s body and experience through menopause are different, so this will vary.

Dr. Christmas says you go through two major shifts heading into your mid life years:

  1. Menopause – a major change in your hormonal makeup
  2. Aging – changes that happen as you get older, like the slowing down of your metabolism

So when we talk about your journey through menopause it also includes the natural progression your body will go through as it gets older. I think this is an important piece of the puzzle to remember. The changes going on in your body can’t all be blamed on menopause.

Hormones can play a major role in unwanted weight gain around menopause. Your body’s ovaries begin to slow down it’s production of estrogen and progesterone, creating metabolic changes in that slows down your metabolism. These changes affect how you are able to burn fat/calories and it reduces your muscle tone (which is also part of the natural aging process). This may accelerate your weight gain.

Here’s the good news…the work that you’re going to do now doesn’t just get you through menopause, it will help to keep you stronger and healthier as you age..and that should be your end goal!

The pattern of menopausal weight gain is common, but why?

Most of you are busy and probably doing way too much in your day to help support other people. Dr. Christmas notes that there are many factors that come into play as well, which may include:

If you have really debilitating perimenopausal symptoms, please speak to your doctor about ways you can get support.
There is help!!!

Much of your weight gain heading into menopause probably will land around your mid section, which is very common…I for one remember the day I woke up and none of my pants fit anymore! 

Here’s the good news…not every woman experiences weight gain heading into menopause and if you do gain a bit of weight, things may level out a few years later.

Here’s the not so good news…the visceral fat that often builds up heading into menopause around your mid section and organs can increase your risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease/stroke.

Let’s look at some things you can do to help mitigate this.

What can you do to try to avoid weight gain into menopause?

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What you used to do or eat in your younger years doesn’t necessarily work when you get older, especially as your hormones shift and metabolism changes. Below I offer some simple things you can do when it comes to your eating/lifestyle habits and exercise routines. You can't avoid menopause, it's a natural transition in your life, but you can work towards a strong and healthy body as you age and that's got to be your end goal.
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Does weight gain and perimenopause symptoms stop after you’ve reached menopause?

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For most women, according to Dr. Christmas, it may take a few years after the last period to see symptoms reduce and level out. For other women symptoms can last for many years later, so it’s important to do what you can to nurture and support your body so you can sleep better and feel better.  Generally speaking, once your body gets used to not having so much estrogen/progesterone in your post menopause years it should adjust and symptoms subside. My body never went back to the size I was in my 20s and now I wear a size up from before and that's ok...at least I don't feel so bloated and gassy all the time. I'll take that!

Support your body through menopause (and aging)

EXERCISE for your health:

Exercise can help to improve your mood, strengthen your body and support your bones, however, going into menopause and not sleeping well can lead to fatigue, anxiety, depression and mood changes. Now add to that the physical changes your body’s going through right before your eyes and it’s no wonder you may feel like nothing you do is enough.

Dr. Christmas talks about the importance of cardio workouts, but to maintain muscle tone and to keep your balance strong you need to do resistance training at least a couple times a week. This is why I love Pilates!

I’ve worked with women who fight their way through menopause, over exercising and working hard to be everything for everyone, but to what end? All of this creates a little vicious cycle and can deplete your body of much needed nutrients as you get older and puts your joints at risk for injury. Here are my top 5 exercises for perimenopause!

STRESS MANAGEMENT:

Stop running on that hamster wheel! Slow down and take stock of what’s important in your life right now and what’s important for your health in the future. I often remind women the things they tell us when travelling on an airplane…grab your air mask first, take care of yourself then take care of the people around you.

There are many ways to work on reducing stress in your life, which is important for reducing that “belly bulge” or excess weight. You may start to experience some “insulin resistance” heading into menopause and an increase in cortisol (from prolonged stress) and this may put you at risk for diabetes and heart disease.

SO FIND YOUR THING! What helps you chill out, relax, reset and sleep better? What helps you breathe deeply and calm your nervous system to reduce your chronic stress?

If you need help from a health practitioner talk to them or reach out to me.

EAT FOR YOUR BRAIN, BONES & BODY:

From a hormonal perspective, less estrogen causes a decrease in leptin (a natural appetite suppressant) and can signal your body to hold onto weight. It is also common to experience higher levels of cortisol heading into menopause, leading to your body’s ability to respond to insulin and take up glucose from your blood. So to help keep your blood sugar more stable it’s important to eat regularly through the day (every few hours), make sure you’re having enough protein, complex fibre filled carbs (broccoli, apples, grains etc.) and some good fats.

Hormones aside, eating healthy meals is another challenge many peri menopausal women face, restricting food intake or dieting as a means to losing weight or not eating regularly because of a really busy life. But despite all the shifting and changing your body still requires nutrients to feed your brain, support your bones and fuel your body. REMEMBER YOU’RE PLAYING THE LONG GAME…AGING!

Let’s shift your mindset from what you’re eating and take a look at when, and how you eat your meals.

WHEN should you eat…REGULARLY!
This one is super important for you, why you ask?

Your body is a system of rhythms and timing…it likes regularity. When you eat regularly, you’ll often poop regularly too. 

Eating regularly helps to keep your blood sugar from crashing and burning or spiking through the day. You may already start to struggle with insulin resistance (see note above) and eating regular meals will help with this.

Eat in the morning, don’t wait until halfway through your day to fuel your body! You need nutrients to maintain your muscle mass and support your bones and brain. BUT try not to start your day with sugary foods like sweet cereals, bread, sweeteners in coffee etc.

HOW should you eat…CALMLY, CHEWING WELL!
Another one of those things practitioners talk about but it really is true.

The calmer you are when you eat your food the better chance you have of digesting it well…you want your body to be in a rest and digest nervous system mode not a fight or flight one.

Chewing your food well also helps to support your digestion…I myself know that when I wolf my food down quickly, barely chewing it, I experience gas and bloating like crazy. So take your time and savour your food. 

When you chew your food well you take longer to eat and often times you’ll feel satiated, so you won’t eat as much food as what might be on your plate.

So let’s recap things:

  • Hormone fluctuations can last 8-10 years heading into menopause, but should level out a couple years post menopause
  • There are two major things that happen to women in mid life, menopause and aging
  • There are many factors that may be in play when it comes to weight gain heading into menopause and it may not be about your food
  • Visceral fat (fat around your tummy) can increase your risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease/stroke
  • Support your body through targeted exercise (resistance training), stress management and eating well to help you stay stronger and healthier as you age

If you need to talk about what’s going on with your health, reach out to me. I can help you navigate your menopause journey.

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About the Author
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Cindy Willems

Cindy is the owner/creator of My Fit Over 50. She is a registered acupuncturist, certified Pilates instructor, holistic nutritionist and educator. She takes a holistic approach to achieving whole body health and she believes that it is important to keep challenging the body and mind safely and efficiently as we age. Cindy also has a busy clinic called Women's Health Centre in Toronto, Ontario.