As women and as we progress through life, our body goes through many different changes. Our hormones play a key role as we progress to puberty to our years of having a menstrual cycle and then through menopause.
What is the menopause?
Menopause marks the end of having menstrual cycles. This is when the ovaries stop producing eggs for fertilisation. Menopause is officially diagnosed twelve months’ after someone’s last menstrual period. Many women’s transition to menopause is usually gradual and involves fluctuating hormone levels for several years.
Menopause can be a hard time for many women as they enter a phase of their life where due to fluctuations in hormones, they experience many new symptoms such as:
It’s important to note that the symptoms and age of onset vary widely from woman to woman. This is thought to be due to differences in lifestyles; diet; genetics and reproductive histories.
Why am I gaining weight?
One change that many women report is a change in their body composition, alongside increased bloating and water retention. This isn’t surprising as our hormones affect so many of our body’s systems.
So, what’s driving this weight gain?
Decreased Oestrogen Production
It is thought that one of the main drivers of weight gain during the menopause is decreased oestrogen production. It has been reported that in animal studies, normal oestrogen levels can contribute to maintaining body weight. However, when oestrogen levels are lowered below range, the animals tend to eat more and be less physically active.
This is thought to be the same in women. As they go through menopause, oestrogen levels decrease, which can have a knock on effect on hormones controlling appetite such as leptin and ghrelin.
The changes in hormones can also have an impact on where fat is stored. These changes make women more likely to gain weight around their abdomen or mid-section than around their hips and thighs.
Decreased Muscle Mass
Another drive of weight gain is decreased muscle mass. As we age, a progressive loss of muscle mass and strength can occur known as sarcopenia. The quantity of muscle mass in our body can have a big impact on our metabolic rate with higher levels of muscle mass contributing to a higher basal metabolic rate (BMR) and lower levels of muscle mass contributing to a lower BMR. As women’s levels of muscle mass decrease with age, so does their BMR. This means that they will burn less calories as they go through the menopause than pre-menopause.
Many women experience difficulty sleeping around the menopause due to night sweats, hot flushes and increased insomnia. Sleep or lack of sleep can have a big knock on effect on someone’s weight management, due to the effect of sleep on our body’s hunger hormones. With decreasing amounts of sleep, cortisol (our stress hormone) and ghrelin (our hunger hormone) levels increase. A study looking at the effect of reduced sleep (5.5 hours v 8.5 hours) found that there was a decrease in fat loss and a decrease in muscle mass in the group in which sleep was restricted. This study was highly controlled with participants being in a lab where everything including calorie intake was controlled for over 2 weeks. While both groups were in a caloric deficit, the sleep restricted group lost 0.6kg of fat while the group who got 8.5hrs of sleep lost 1.4kg of fat! The sleep deprived group also had increased hunger levels.
Research has also shown that reduced sleep can lead to overeating. One study found that after 2 nights of less than 8hrs of sleep, energy intake increased by 20% and bodyweight increased by 0.4kg. Lack of sleep has been associated with consuming over 475 calories extra from snacks daily.
What can I do to combat this?
As we age, our protein requirements actually go up. As mentioned previously, as we get older, we have a greater risk of developing sarcopenia, a progressive loss of muscle mass. A high protein diet is a really important factor for helping to reduce the risk of any muscle mass.
Another benefit of protein is decreased appetite. Protein is the most satiating aka filling nutrient of all three macronutrients which makes it a favourite for including when weight loss is a goal. It can also help to manage blood sugar levels which could decrease cravings.
A good rule of thumb is to include a serving of protein at each meal throughout the day. For example, this could look like having yoghurt or eggs with your breakfast, turkey/chickpeas for lunch and salmon for dinner.
Resistance training is another excellent approach for women during and after the menopause. Resistance training, especially when coupled with a high protein diet, is very effective and reducing the rate of muscle breakdown and can result in increased muscle mass. Increased muscle mass can contribute to a higher BMR which can make weight management more manageable.
It’s easier said than done, but prioritising sleep can have a really beneficial effect on women at all stages of life, but especially during and after the menopause.
· One thing which we commonly see affecting sleep is caffeine intake from things like coffee, tea and soft drinks. Caffeine has a long half-life in the body meaning that it stays in our system for a long time. People metabolise caffeine differently meaning everyone’s tolerance and cut off times are different. In general, it’s advised not to consume caffeine after ~2pm, but assessing your own tolerance and cut off time is best. This caffeine cut off counts for all beverages consuming caffeine.
You could try swapping out your evening black tea or coffee for herbal tea. Sleep blends including chamomile, valerian and lemon balm can all have a relaxing effect on the body helping you to get a better quality sleep.
Getting into a consistent routine with waking and bed times will massively help your sleep routine. Our bodies love familiarity and routine. This all comes down to our circadian rhythm.
Blue light exposure is another area that can affect our sleep quality and quantity. Artificial light from phones, laptops, TVs and iPads affects the secretion of melatonin, our sleep hormone. Ideally, you should have 30-60 minutes free of all devices before going to sleep. If you’re using your phone late in the evening, dim the light on your screen or use an app to minimise blue light exposure.
Your bedroom should also be really dark. Put down the blinds to minimise any light coming in.
Sleeping in a cool room will also help as getting too hot throughout the night can impair sleep quality.
Get into the habit of having a pre bed routine that helps you to unwind and chill out. You can’t expect to get a good night’s sleep of your body is still in a state of fight or flight from a really busy and stressful day. This routine will be different for everyone. Try a warm bath, some stretching/foam rolling, reading your favourite book, journaling, yoga, drawing or mediation.
Take Vitamin D
It’s recommended that everyone supplements with vitamin D at all stages of life. Menopause is no different and is a time where taking vitamin D becomes even more important.
Research has suggested that taking vitamin D can help in the management of menopausal symptoms. It’s also essential for maintaining strong bones.
As vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin, it’s recommended to get your blood levels checked in a blood test.
Drinking enough fluids is always important, but becomes especially important as we retain water as many women do during the menopause. It’s possible to monitor your hydration levels by seeing what colour your urine is throughout the day. Ideally, you should be aim for it to be a light, yellowy, straw colour. Any darker, and it’s a sign you might be slightly dehydrated and might need to drink some more!
Limiting high sodium foods can also be a good idea as too high an intake of salt can worsen water retention.