We are used to gaining and losing weight most of our lives but perimenopausal weight gain may feel different somehow. You would be right to blame it on your hormones, as despite dieting or increased exercise the pounds pile on almost when you are not looking and are certainly harder to lose at this time of life.
The good news is that you are not alone as gaining weight in perimenopause is very common as almost 80% of women surveyed reported moderate to severe weight gain as a symptom of perimenopause.
It is not called ‘the change’ for nothing!
Perimenopause is when your body starts gearing up – or really down – to enter menopause and you start seeing symptoms that you have not noticed before. This is a time when you can feel vulnerable and this sudden weight gain seems like just one more thing to deal with when you are also looking at emotional challenges around how you look, feel and deal with life’s problems.
Perimenopause is the time in life when everything feels like it’s changing beyond your control and this is particularly frustrating when the changes that are going on in your body seem to be happening almost without your permission and weight gain in particular can make us very discouraged.
The truth is that perimenopausal weight gain is different from your earlier weight loss experiences and that’s why losing weight at this time will require something different too. The first step is to understand what’s really causing you to gain weight and the 4 main reasons are probably not what you’d expect them to be:
Reason 1 – Oestrogen
Your changing oestrogen levels are the primary cause and because your body’s natural levels from the ovaries are declining it compensates by switching production. It searches for other sources and as body fat can actually produce oestrogen, your system will start to rely on it to make up for what can no longer be produced by your ovaries.
This makes your fat valuable — and your body will do anything to keep it. Unfortunately the sites it chooses to deposit this fat to boost your oestrogen levels is usually the abdomen, stomach and thighs – just where you don’t want it.
Reason 2 – Testosterone
Gains in belly fat lead to more belly fat as the body strives to increase oestrogen. This increased production cycle is fueled by stress, high cortisol levels and blood sugar imbalances, which are all common at this time of life. These changes create an even greater imbalance between the sex hormones (especially oestrogen and testosterone) and lead to more fat deposition.
Why testosterone? Because with raised levels of testosterone, women naturally begin to store weight in more of a ‘male’ pattern (around our bellies) than we did during our reproductive years when fat was deposited on our breasts, arms, thighs, and bottom.
Reason 3 – Insulin
We know ‘you are what you eat’ but at perimenopause it should be ‘you are what you ate’ as previous food choices influence weight gain now. The number of fat cells you have is connected to your blood sugar levels and your insulin levels.
Over time, a diet filled with processed foods and refined sugars can cause “insulin resistance” which means your body will convert every last calorie into fat if it can — even if you’re dieting or have switched to a healthier eating pattern.
If you also use artificial sweeteners to keep weight down they can now be a problem as some of these actually mimic sugar so well that your body produces insulin to metabolize them. That just feeds the insulin resistance that causes perimenopausal weight gain.
Artificial sweeteners can have the opposite effect to helping you lose weight, so don’t switch to them as an alternative to sugar but reduce your sugar intake instead.
Reason 4 – Stress
In the past you probably went on a diet and increased the amount that you exercised. Now, because of the role that hormonal imbalance plays in perimenopausal weight gain, just simply watching what you eat and exercising more is not going to be effective this time round — even if it worked for you in the past.
Extreme dieting or exercise is very problematic in perimenopause as your sex hormones and stress hormones are already struggling to stay in balance. Adding physical stress from over-dieting or over-exercising will release more of the stress hormone, cortisol.
Why is this a bad thing? Because cortisol blocks weight loss. Take a more relaxed attitude to life, dieting and exercise and your body will thank you.
How to reduce perimenopausal weight gain
For women at perimenopause it is next to impossible to lose weight until hormonal balance is restored. This doesn’t happen by cutting out carbs or adding a bit more exercise to your routine but by tackling hormone imbalance at its root.
Oestrogen dominance is a major factor in weight gain and although many women are given supplemental oestrogen at perimenopause from HRT, the essential balancing role of progesterone is neglected.
Progesterone helps women lose weight in two ways: first by acting as a diuretic to directly release retained fluid and secondly by helping tackle stress as reduces anxiety and improves mood.