As women, we spend so much of our lives comparing ourselves to other women – whether it’s our friends, our co-workers, our sisters or family members, or the many women who stare back at us from the pages of magazines, or TV and film screens. We use these other women as models of what is good and beautiful, and what is not. Many of us struggle to accept that our nose or our thighs are just never going to look like Gisele’s.
As we get older, we finally make peace with our bodies and learn to love them as they are and then BAM! Perimenopause shows up with all its challenges, from hot flashes to headaches to the dreaded weight gain.
Suddenly we find ourselves looking in the mirror wishing we could have our old bodies back. Perimenopausal weight gain is very common; it’s our bodies’ way of adapting to our new hormone levels and supporting us during the changes that nature intended to occur as we leave our reproductive years behind.
But just because it’s common doesn’t mean it is mandatory. We all have a metabolic set point, and that set point can change, but it does not need to change after menopause. Weight gain is another symptom of imbalance in your body and with some effort and care, you can maintain — or restore — your ideal weight in perimenopause, menopause and beyond.
Let’s look at what is going on that is encouraging your body to store more fat and what you can do to help your body let it go.
Causes of Menopausal Weight Gain
Every woman is unique, and we each face our own weight challenges, but there are some common causes of menopausal weight gain that many women struggle with. Our hormones and our fat cells are part of a complex and comprehensive network responsible for metabolism, appetite, digestion, heat regulation, and detoxification. Any breakdown in communication will result in symptoms like hot flashes, food cravings, and yes, weight gain.
In order to prevent weight gain, we need to ensure that the network is communicating regularly and effectively so that there are no breakdowns. We are still learning about the many connections and links between hormones and fat. But one absolutely critical link is the connection between insulin, metabolism and body fat.
Our bodies have three primary hormones: insulin, adrenaline, and cortisol. Adrenaline and cortisol manage our stress response while insulin controls our blood sugar levels. In other words, food and stress directly affect our hormones! Insulin is driven by the food we eat and when we eat too much sugar, white flour and processed foods, insulin levels will rise. When we are exposed to high or chronic stress, adrenaline and cortisol will increase.
Whenever our body is out of alignment and struggling with a primary hormone, it does not have the resources or the ability to produce optimal levels of secondary hormones such as estrogen and progesterone. Many of us eat too much white sugar and white flour, too many processed foods and carbohydrates, and not enough healthy fats.
Whether your weakness is bread, pasta, sugared coffee drinks, alcohol or dessert, if your blood glucose levels are high and you are approaching insulin resistance, or have insulin sensitivity, your body will convert every calorie it can into fat. That’s because even though you may be gaining weight, your cells are actually starving for the healthy nutrients they need!
In addition, even if you have not been diagnosed with diabetes or insulin resistance, many of us have insulin sensitivity and have glucose levels that are higher than they should be. Heading into perimenopause, this is a recipe for weight gain. Your body will store fat to ensure it has what it needs, and your hormonal imbalance and sugar consumption may lead to cravings that are hard to resist. If you do choose to eat a high sugar food, be sure to add some protein to help stabilize your blood sugar levels.
On a side note, I just want to say that the answer to sugar cravings is not artificial sweeteners. These sweeteners such as aspartame (NutraSweet and Equal), sucralose (Splenda), and saccharin (Sweet ’n Low or Sugar Twin) have toxic effects on the body that can bring a host of side effects including headaches and digestive problems and can also exacerbate your underlying hormonal imbalance issues.
Despite being calorie free, these substitutes mimic sugar and may cause your body to produce insulin to metabolize them. These artificial sweeteners have been shown to increase insulin resistance and actually cause you to eat more, resulting in weight gain. And many of them contain caffeine to compensate for the energy crash that follows consumption, which can cause additional challenges if you are struggling with adrenal fatigue. So please avoid artificial sweeteners! If you are looking to add some sweetness, your best choice is stevia. If you want to learn more about dealing with sugar and sugar cravings, see our article, “Sweet Poison – Kicking Your Sugar Addiction.”
Let’s face it, life today can be stressful! We all face many stressors ranging from physical to emotional even to food-related. Binge eating, yo-yo dieting, and undiagnosed food sensitivities all take a toll on our health over time; to our bodies, these extreme conditions are considered to be stressors that put our body into survival mode.
Throw in work and family, bills, crazy drivers, aging parents and hormonal teenagers, and life can be a steady stream of stressful situations.
If this sounds like your life, you’re not alone! But the toll it is taking on your adrenal system may make weight loss — or even maintenance — impossible. Stress hormones such as cortisol will block weight loss; just as we saw with insulin, when these hormone levels are high, they can cause your body to go into a famine mode and hoard and store extra calories. Prolonged stress that doesn’t let up can also lead to a metabolic disorder known as adrenal fatigue. Learn more about adrenal fatigue with our many informative articles in our Adrenal Health Library.
If you combine high stress with a low fat, high carb diet, the resulting hormonal imbalance will almost guarantee weight gain. And as we discussed when we talked about insulin, a high carb diet can cause food cravings, as neurotransmitters become imbalanced. If serotonin levels are low or you are having rebound sugar crashes after a high glucose meal, you will find yourself in search of an afternoon snack to “feel better.” But unfortunately, if you succumb, you will only feed the cycle of insulin resistance and adrenal exhaustion and you’ll almost certainly add extra body fat.
If you feel “tired” all the time or conversely, feel “wired” on a regular basis, you’ll want to get extra support for your adrenals. Our tried and true supplements have helped many women just like you! There is also a wealth of information about feeling “tired and wired” in the book I have written on this topic, Is It Me Or My Adrenals?
Weight gain in mid-life is often tied to estrogen levels. During perimenopause, it is the fluctuation of estrogen (and its relationship to other hormones such as progesterone) that can cause challenges for our body to maintain balance. When that happens, fat can become your body’s best friend. After menopause, the reduced estrogen levels overall can cause the body to store extra fat because fat cells can produce estrogen which offers the body a safety net.
As the ovaries produce less estrogen, the body turns to other production sources such as the skin, organs and yes, our fat cells. Extra fat cells become insurance for your body to ensure that if the ovaries don’t come through, your body will still be okay, because the fat cells can step in. If you have other mitigating conditions, such as bone loss, or you are stressed or not eating enough healthy fats then your body will struggle even further with your fluctuating hormones and will be even more likely to store excess fat as insurance.
For more information about estrogen, read our article, “Estrogen Dominance – Is It Real?“.
Many studies have shown that even people in remote rural areas carry toxins that get stored in their fat cells. Animals store pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones in their fat, which we take in when we eat them. This is why buying organic grass-fed meats is so important. We are exposed to these chemicals through the food we eat; the air we breathe; the products we cook with, eat, and drink from, and wear – and we too store them in our cells. See our article, “A List Of Common Toxins,” for more information.
We all have a toxic burden from birth as studies show babies are born with chemicals already in their systems from their mothers. But over the course of our lives, we add to that burden.
Plastics, chemicals, heavy metals, allergens, bacteria, pesticides, radiation, poisons, and additives to cosmetics, cleaners, clothing, and furniture – all add to our “toxic load.” A healthy immune system will detoxify and release these, but if you are compromised in any way, exposed to high levels, or imbalanced, excess toxins will remain in your fat cells. Read about detoxifying your body and why it’s important in our Detoxification articles.
These stored toxins may cause inflammation, which is a common condition that occurs at menopause, and it can further disrupt the communication between our cells and our hormones. In addition, if you lose weight rapidly, these toxins will be released into your system and cause a number of symptoms that may well lead your body to desire returning back to where it was. Even if that previous level wasn’t healthy, what your body considers to be “homeostasis” or what it knows to be a healthy balance, will lead you to gain the weight back.
In addition, food sensitivities, yeast, dysbiosis, and immune system imbalances can also disrupt weight loss. Estrogen serves as a universal shield and protector and as it declines, many other imbalances that may have been present for decades will emerge. It’s common to see women who may have been sensitive to certain foods, but previously got away with it, become less tolerant to them in menopause.
It may seem obvious that when we talked about healthy and balanced nutrition that means monitoring your food intake in terms of total quantity, but also in terms of the quality of nutrients and the right mix of fats, proteins and complex carbohydrates. But that’s not always as simple as it sounds. As hormones change at perimenopause and emotions can run wild, we often see patterns of emotional eating emerge.
Perhaps these emotional triggers have always been there to lesser degrees but suddenly they get dialed up a notch. Sometimes they emerge for the first time as we are navigating the complexity of changing hormones and emotions and we start seeking emotional comfort and stability.
Food often evokes memories of happy times that provide comfort and feed our pleasure receptors, so when we have a hard day, an emotional experience, or feel out of balance, food is something that can ground us.
Many women tell me that they find themselves turning to food in different ways than they ever have before during perimenopause to fill a void or feel calm or find some joy in an otherwise empty moment. Emotional eating is a sign of imbalance and we need to look at the core emotions and address them along with any imbalance in our lives, and in our bodies.
If you find yourself eating emotionally, ask yourself whether you really need the chocolate cake or whether a good hug or someone taking the time to sit and listen to you would yield more in the short – and long – run.
Most women get between 5-7 hours of sleep a night, but we actually need more like 7-9. Less than optimal sleep for a few nights in a row can lead to weight gain and diabetes or insulin resistance. Studies show that even one “off sleep” night can increase blood sugar levels and impair your sensitivity to insulin.
Sleep is required for detoxification and there are so many processes that take place in our bodies at night while we are at rest. When that cycle is disrupted, hormones are disrupted and mental processing is impaired, as is your ability to maintain a good mood and manage anxiety, anger, and depression. Many experts believe that sleep is as important to overall well being as diet and exercise. And when it comes to weight loss or weight management, multiple studies reveal weight gain associated with inadequate or inconsistent sleep.
Before we talk about successful strategies to maintain or lose weight during perimenopause, there is one last reason that I have found that women struggle to lose weight. For some women, weight is a protector; it’s a way to prevent themselves from being seen, a way to hide themselves from the world. It may be due to sexual abuse or trauma; research now indicates that as many as 1 in 3 women will suffer from some kind of sexual trauma in their lives. One large study of people who had lost over 100 pounds then gained them back uncovered that all of the women who regained the weight had suffered from sexual abuse.
Obesity may also be the result of some other challenge that impacts self-esteem or self-love. If weight has been an issue during your life at times other than perimenopause, one question to ask yourself may well be, “how much do you like and accept yourself?” Constantly comparing ourselves to other women can sometimes make us self-critical.
In addition to using weight as protection against truly feeling something, or finally letting something go, I see the other end of the spectrum as well. Some women who have been very fit – and perhaps even a bit too thin – come to me struggling to accept that they have reached a more “normal” weight during perimenopause. If loving yourself as you are is a challenge, you may want to look into a great book by Jessica Ortner called The Tapping Solution for Weight Loss and Body Confidence.
Weight Loss Strategies
If you want to maintain your weight, or get back to where you were before perimenopause changed things, then the key to doing so is to give your body the support it needs so that it can stay balanced and will not need to resort to protective measures. With most of my patients, it comes down to one of three main imbalances: hormones, adrenals or insulin.
If you have a stressful life, if you feel tired all the time or find you are wired from the stress and the daily to-dos, you most likely need adrenal support. Our Adrenal Health products will help your body restore balance, reduce cravings, and manage your energy.
If you are experiencing other perimenopausal symptoms, then your body is likely struggling to balance its hormone ratios. Marcelle Pick’s Menopause Program may be just what you need to restore hormonal balance and fill in the nutritional gaps that your diet may reveal during this time of transition.
If you are struggling to maintain or lose weight, you may have insulin resistance or insulin sensitivity. As we age, the impact of empty calories and high levels of simple carbohydrates are cumulative and become even worse for our bodies. If you know your diet includes lots of processed foods, sugar or white flour, you’ll want to add more protein, reduce sugar levels and take a high-quality multivitamin to bridge your nutritional gaps. We offer these high-quality, pharmaceutical grade supplements to enhance your health.
Even if you have a healthy organic diet, we still see women benefit from nutritional support. Like any other intervention, if you are doing well, you can begin to transition off over time. But getting a boost of nourishment and support may be just what you body needs to get back on the right track.
Weight isn’t just going to fall off if you are eating poorly and not exercising. But while it will be beneficial to increase your metabolic function through weight training, and exercise and regular movement are important long-term health and weight management strategies, the answer to weight loss isn’t working out for several hours a day either. If your weight is not where you want it to be despite your best efforts to eat well and exercise, then there is an underlying imbalance of some kind that you will want to identify.
Weight loss is also not about having more willpower: we now know willpower is like a muscle that can fatigue, just like your abs after too many sit-ups. Weight loss is not as simple as the old myth, perpetuated by the diet industry to keep us stuck, about calories in vs. calories out. The type of calories and the quality of calories matters far more than the total amount we consume.
Avoiding fat isn’t the answer either. In fact, avoiding fat will likely cause our bodies to compensate by storing extra fat. We need fats for brain function, cell function, and hormone synthesis.
A balanced diet with lots of healthy fat, combined with grass-fed meat protein and wild deep-sea fish, and complex carbohydrates such as fruits and vegetables in all the colors of the rainbow is a great start. But if you are transitioning there, or even if you are there but you are still experiencing symptoms, you will need additional support. Our nutritional supplements can help.
While it’s most likely hormonal imbalance, insulin sensitivity or resistance, or adrenal fatigue, in some cases you could have a neurotransmitter imbalance, leptin resistance, or inflammation (high C-reactive protein levels) due to food sensitivities. The key is to work with your practitioner to identity the underlying concern so that you can resolve it and return to your desired weight.
Nutrition and supplementation, balancing hormones, sleep, stress relief, dealing with your emotions (not pushing them away) and finding balance in your life are all key components to avoiding perimenopausal weight gain. It happens to so many women because so many women are out of balance – their lifetime of bad habits finally catches up to them in menopause. But that does not have to be you. If you become proactive, rather than inactive or reactive, you can change the trajectory and maintain a healthy happy body through menopause and beyond!