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Stubborn Weight Gain? Blame Menopause

When it comes to body weight, numerous women navigating the challenges of the menopausal transition are surprised when their efforts to maintain a lean body mass through a healthy lifestyle no longer yield the same results. Women often notice the number on the scale creeping up gradually over the years, even if healthy, balanced eating and exercise has remained a constant.

Perhaps you have noticed that you put significant effort into keeping a lean figure, but the results never seem to show.

Rest assured, you are not alone. Stubborn belly fat starting in the 40s and 50s can resist all the things that used to work prior to the menopausal transition.

Lack of effort is not the issue for many women facing menopausal weight gain. The underlying issue is the hormonal changes that occur with menopause. As ovarian function starts to decline with age, certain hormones also decline. These hormones have important metabolic functions. In other words, your metabolism (how you burn fat and create energy) is also affected by menopause. Therefore, menopause signifies big changes when it comes to body mass.

The Roles of Hormones in Metabolic Health

Menopause is a hormonal shift that occurs in all women, on average around age 51.

Menopause is preceded by perimenopause, which can last a few years or many years. Menopause signifies the end of ovulation in the reproductive life of a woman, while perimenopause is the transition period before menopause where ovulation becomes irregular and sparse.

Progesterone is stimulated when an egg is released from the ovary. With menopause, as ovulation becomes more irregular and less frequent, progesterone falls.

Progesterone increases the basal metabolic rate- AKA your metabolism.

Estrogen is also released by the ovaries. Estrogen regulates insulin-sensitive glucose transporters. Cells have transporters embedded into their walls that act like gates. Insulin is the key to the lock on the gate, which allows glucose to enter the cell. With less estrogen in the body, the "gates" become less sensitive which allows blood sugar levels to spike.

Testosterone is another important hormone that declines with age. Although it's considered a "male" hormone, women actually produce more testosterone than estrogen. Testosterone steadily declines after age 25. Since a portion of the total testosterone in the body is produced by the ovaries, as ovarian function drops with menopause so does testosterone. Testosterone is responsible for maintaining healthy muscle mass. The more muscle on your body, the easier you will burn fat.

Other Menopausal Weight Gain Factors

There are several other factors that contribute to metabolic decline with the menopausal transition. While hormones are still the common denominator behind these changes, specific support for certain body systems affected by the hormonal decline may be needed.

1. Gut Health:

The gastrointestinal tract is home to many, many bacteria and microbial organisms. The population of microbes in the gut is referred to as the microbiome.

"Good" bacteria inhabit the gut, and their role is to crowd out and control opportunistic bacteria. Opportunistic bacteria tend to overgrow when given the right set of conditions, and this imbalance can cascade into a variety of gut problems.

Alterations to the gut microbiome brought on by menopause have been well-studied. Menopause appears to trigger a reduction of beneficial bacteria called Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria.

The Lactobacillus genus and the Bifidobacteria genus are important regulators of bacterial balance in the body. The overgrowth of opportunistic bacteria caused by the decline in good bacteria can contribute to frustrating gut symptoms such as bloating, irregular bowel movements, and abdominal pain.

The gut microbiome does much more than control gastrointestinal health. Gut bacteria play an important role in mood regulation, cardiovascular health, immune health, and blood sugar regulation.

To dive deeper into the topic of the gut microbiome's role in maintaining a healthy weight, bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria appear to regulate cells of the pancreas that secrete insulin and activate a peptide called GLP-1. GLP-1 has a critical role in blood sugar levels and regulating appetite. You may have heard of the Ozempic craze, which is a medication that acts on GLP-1.

Probiotics supplements are an effective addition to a holistic plan for managing menopausal weight gain. Probiotic supplements help replace the healthy bacteria that we lose in menopause.

2. Thyroid Health:

The thyroid gland is present in both men and women, located at the front of the neck. One of the important roles of the thyroid gland is to regulate metabolism. In other words, optimal thyroid functioning is needed for a healthy body mass.

Thyroid function tends to decline with age.

Interestingly, suboptimal thyroid function is more common in women than in men. The decline in thyroid hormone with age can contribute to challenges with maintaining a healthy weight.

Thyroid levels can be tested by a healthcare provider to assess thyroid hormone status.

Important nutrients for thyroid health include selenium and iodine. Selenium is a trace mineral that is most concentrated in the thyroid and it helps activate thyroid hormone. Iodine is also a trace mineral important for the thyroid hormone's molecular structure. Both selenium and iodine can be supplemented to ensure adequate levels.

3. Stress Management

If you are noticing you have a shorter fuse than normal as a menopausal woman, you are not alone. Changes to neurotransmitter chemicals in the brain happen with menopause-related hormonal shifts. Anxiety, depression, and irritability are common experiences for women in their 4th and 5th decade and beyond.

The connection between stress and weight gain is clear in the research. Stress not only encourages cravings for carbohydrate-rich and fatty foods, but stress hormones also redirect the body's metabolism in an unfavorable direction.

Cortisol, a primary stress hormone, is well-known to increase blood sugar levels. Cortisol is also responsible for fat deposition around the middle. Fat accumulation around the middle of the body is referred to as visceral fat. Visceral fat is the most unhealthy type of fat, due to it's association with diseases such as metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

Are you looking for mental health support during menopause? Consider omega-3 fatty acids, which directly support brain health. The brain has a whopping 60% fat content. In other words, your brain needs fats. Golden Over 50's Omega 3B is a great fit for menopausal women dealing with mood changes due to its high-quality and pure omega-3 fatty acids.

Dr. Laurel Ash ND, MS

Dr Laurel Ash, ND, MS is an Oregon and Washington board-certified Naturopathic Physician. With a passion for nutritional health, Dr Ash earned her doctorate in Naturopathy from the National University of Natural Medicine while receiving her masters in Integrative Mental Health. Her unique combination of evidence-based research and skilled knowledge in holistic medicine has allowed Dr. Ash to successfully treat many with a wide-range of issues.