“Life begins at forty,” so goes that much-repeated phrase.
For women, however, their forties is usually accompanied by the onset of menopause, a physiological phenomenon that basically means the end of a woman’s reproductive season. In most women, the beginning of menopause also heralds several rather unpleasant symptoms, some of which are the following:
- Vaginal dryness. Women going through menopause often find that sex is now less pleasurable, and sometimes even painful, due to a decrease in the vagina’s natural lubrication
- Hot flashes and night sweats. Even in cold weather, many menopausal women may experience the sensation of an “internal furnace” turning up at random times of the day. This discomfort often extends to bedtime, with some women complaining of reduced sleep quality due to uncomfortable night sweats.
- Irritability and mood swings. Feeling ticked off more often by things that you would otherwise normally let pass? Or do you feel more emotionally sensitive lately? It may not be just midlife crisis, but the hormonal changes triggered by menopause.
- Reduced bone mineral density. It’s not just old age; menopause also causes women’s bones to become more brittle, making them more susceptible to degenerative bone disease, fractures, and dislocations.
But among the side effects menopause brings, none is perhaps as worrisome to women as weight gain.
Menopause and Weight Gain: What’s the Connection?
“No, Susan, you’re not alone when you cry over not fitting into your favorite size 4 dress anymore.” A new study concludes that 90 percent of women gain weight as soon as they approach menopause. In fact, women are much more likely to become obese as soon as they reach perimenopausal (40 to 58 years) or menopausal age (over 60 years).
What could be the reason for this menopausal “weight gain”? While the natural process of aging does predispose women to weight gain (by approximately 1.1 pounds every year, according to a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology), menopause also plays a part in this. How? Here are a few factors:
- Decrease in estrogen levels. As soon as menopause kicks in, estrogen production in the ovaries slows down. This signals the body to get estrogen somewhere else, and the next best source of it are adipose tissues (or simply, fat). Producing fat is basically the body’s way of keeping a woman’s estrogen levels in check during menopause.
- High androgen levels. With the decrease in estrogen comes a surge in androgen serum levels, which are primarily responsible for that extra layer of fat in a menopausal woman’s mid-section.
- Decrease in testosterone production or high conversion. Testosterone is mainly responsible for the creation of lean body mass or muscle, which are more efficient at burning calories. However, during menopause, testosterone gets converted to estrogen. Basically what this means is that your body produces more fat rather than muscle.
- Insulin resistance. During menopause, a woman’s body may become less sensitive to insulin (the hormone responsible for converting sugar from the food we eat into either energy or glucose for future use). Coupled with a less active lifestyle that comes with advanced age, a woman’s body during menopause tends to convert glucose into fat.
Of course, there are other causes of weight gain during menopause. Some of these are poor lifestyle choices (excessive alcohol intake, lack of physical activity, unhealthy eating habits, among others), co-existing health issues, hormonal imbalance (hyperthyroidism, which is quite common, usually goes undiagnosed in menopause-age women), and use of prescription drugs (such as those for mental conditions and hypertension).
Menopausal Weight Gain and Its Impact on Overall Health
Should women be concerned about gaining weight during menopause? A study published in the clinical journal Climacteric points out that they should: weight gain during menopause has been linked to greater body fat and abdominal obesity. Below are a few reasons why women should be worried by that:
- When your body stores too much fat, your risk for getting heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and atherosclerosis goes up significantly.
- Obesity during menopause increases the severity of some of the more unpleasant symptoms of menopause—depression, mood swings, difficulty sleeping, and hot flashes, among others.
- Estrogen metabolism from adipose tissue stores has been linked with greater cancer risk.
- As mentioned previously, menopause predisposes older women to degenerative bone disease (such as osteoporosis) and lower bone mineral density, making them vulnerable to injury. The risk is significantly higher for obese menopausal women or those with high body mass indices.
Countless studies exist to show how obesity during menopause can negatively impact women’s physical health. What isn’t widely discussed is that it can also adversely affect their mental and emotional well-being. With this, women are generally advised to undergo natural hormone therapy and weight management to treat or curb the more serious effects of menopause.
Questions? We are ready to help! Click here to schedule a free consultation with Dr. Fleischman, our menopause specialist.