Menopause is a natural phase of life that eventually happens to everyone who menstruates, once they reach a certain age. But, natural as it may be, menopause also comes with a variety of symptoms that can impact your quality of life — including changes to your body composition, such as muscle mass loss and visceral fat gain.
This article will discuss how menopause is linked to visceral fat gain, and what you can do to manage it.
How menopause affects your body
Most people with menstrual cycles have been going through a regular monthly hormonal cycle since puberty. During this cycle, the hormones estrogen and progesterone go up and down to signal to your body when it’s time to ovulate, or release an egg from your ovaries to travel through your fallopian tubes to be fertilized. If the body detects that that monthly egg has not been fertilized, the hormones cycle again, to indicate that it’s time to shed the uterine lining (otherwise known as your period).
However, as you approach menopause, that regular hormone cycle changes. More specifically, estrogen and progesterone levels both become much more irregular and gradually decline, leading to irregular periods and an eventual complete stop to your menstrual cycle that signals the end of your ability to naturally reproduce.
It’s important to note that the term “menopause” here can actually be divided into separate phases: perimenopause and post-menopause.
- Perimenopause, which literally translates to “around menopause,” is the period of time when your hormone levels start changing, leading to irregular periods and other common symptoms of menopause, such as weight changes and hot flashes. This phase can last for several years.
- Menopause is officially defined as a timespan of twelve straight months with no period. Post-menopause, as the name suggests, is the period of time after you have reached “official” menopause.
Menopause and visceral fat gain
Unfortunately, one of the consequences of hormonal changes during menopause is that many people report uncomfortable and annoying symptoms. One of the most notable changes to your health is that your irregular hormone levels, paired with overall lifestyle changes that tend to happen during this time of life, are sometimes linked to weight gain.
On average, menopause is associated with a significant weight gain of roughly 2 – 2.5 kg over three years. What’s more, menopause is also associated with a redistribution of body fat — specifically, many people going through menopause find that they gain weight in their midsection.
In addition to the fat tissue found closely beneath your skin and which you can often see in abdominal weight gain (known as subcutaneous fat), menopause is also associated with increased visceral fat. Visceral fat is a kind of fat that is found deep in your abdomen. It cushions your organs. Unlike subcutaneous fat, which is the kind of fat tissue that probably comes to mind first, visceral fat can be hard to detect if you aren’t monitoring your body composition in addition to your weight. Menopause-associated visceral fat gain can begin during perimenopause and can also continue through post-menopause.
Consequences of visceral fat gain
Knowing how your visceral fat composition stands is important because high visceral fat levels are heavily linked to the parameters of metabolic syndrome in women. Metabolic syndrome is the co-occurrence of multiple different conditions, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high blood sugar, and the presence of metabolic syndrome means that a person is at higher risk of serious chronic health problems like heart disease and diabetes.
One key reason that this may happen is because of how the redistribution of fat tissue in the midsection can impact your metabolism. In particular, visceral fat tissue is associated with insulin resistance, otherwise known as your body’s ability to properly metabolize sugar. Insulin allows the sugar in your system (aka glucose) to enter your cells to be used for fuel, but when your insulin sensitivity is low and your body becomes resistant to insulin, the sugar can then remain in your blood rather than in your cells Over time, this can lead to elevated blood sugar levels and subsequent complications like diabetes.
More particularly, visceral fat has been linked to increased cardiometabolic risk in obese women, more so than other kinds of body fat like subcutaneous fat tissue. In other words: your visceral fat level can be a clear indicator of your risk of serious and often life-threatening heart conditions and events, like heart disease, strokes, and heart attacks.
How to control visceral fat gain during menopause
Keep an eye on your body composition metrics
It’s hard to know how much visceral fat you have versus subcutaneous fat, since visceral fat is located deep inside your abdomen and usually can’t be easily seen or detected without the right technology.
One of the easiest ways to find out your visceral fat risk is to use a body composition scale in addition to a weight scale. Body composition scales use bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA) to analyze your body composition and determine key metrics like your visceral fat levels, as well as your overall Percent Body Fat and Fat-Free Mass — all of which can be much more helpful for analyzing your health and fitness levels than weight and Body Mass Index alone. You can also find out your body composition by undergoing a DEXA scan or getting an air displacement plethysmography test. Your doctor may have helpful insights as well.
Don’t underestimate the power of lifestyle changes
One of the most important points to take away from this article is that fat gain does not necessarily need to be inevitable during menopause — in many cases, there are plenty of lifestyle changes you can make to mitigate the changes.
For example: although menopause can cause hormonal changes that lend themselves to weight gain, some people also find that their physical activity declines during this period in time, which can exacerbate the issue. But exercise can be effective for weight control even during menopause. What’s more: some studies have found that exercise is actually imperative for targeting visceral fat.
If it’s your first time exercising (or your first time in a long time), start with moderate physical activity several days a week, such as walking or swimming. As your body becomes more accustomed to this, you can work your way up to longer and more intense exercises, such as jogging, weight-lifting, and boxing.
Talk to your doctor about other options
Because menopause can be so taxing on your health and challenging to your well-being, there are several other options out there for addressing those hormonal changes. However, your first move should be to chat with your doctor to determine the right course of action for you, especially since not all of the “solutions” out there are rooted in clinical research or suited for everybody.
For example, some natural remedies and herbs, like black cohosh, vitex, sage, and fenugreek, have been used for centuries in traditional medicinal practices and are thought to “balance your hormones” and improve various menopause-related symptoms. However, there isn’t strong clinical evidence to support these claims, especially when it comes to targeting body composition, so these should be taken with a grain of salt.
In addition, some people find that they benefit from hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which helps with combatting their naturally-declining estrogen levels. However, this may not be the best route for everyone, so it’s vital to check in with your doctor to get their professional opinion.
Menopause is definitely associated with increased visceral fat in some people, which can increase your risk for several chronic conditions. However, this doesn’t mean that visceral fat gain is inevitable, nor does it mean that you can’t do anything about it. By talking to your doctor about other options, staying active, and making a conscious effort to live a healthy lifestyle focused on your body composition metrics, you can take control during menopause.