Menopause. Often referred to as the “change of life”, this midlife event generally occurs in women sometime between the ages of 40 and 55 – the average age is 51.
Menopause, which literally means the “pause” (end) of your “menses” (period), comes with many physical changes. Some women are lucky enough to skate through this time with no discomfort, while many experience the classic symptoms: hot flashes, reproductive and mood changes, fatigue, and insomnia.
A common complaint is the issue of shrinking pants, as they get tighter and tighter around the waistline. This middle-age spread has even earned a special name: “menopot”.
What exactly is going on during menopause, how does it affect your body composition, and what can you do about it? This article will answer these questions for you.
What exactly is happening during menopause? A lot! The transition to menopause, known as perimenopause, takes place over a period of several years before menopause. During perimenopause, as the ovaries gradually reduce estrogen production, there are many hormonal fluctuations as the body adjusts to the inevitable shut-down of the ovaries.
A woman is officially in menopause when she has not gotten her period for 12-months straight. At this point, the ovaries have shut down production, ending a woman’s child-bearing years.
There are significant physiological and metabolic changes occurring at this time that directly affect your body composition. So, if you feel like the struggle to lose weight or change your body is more difficult than it was 10 or 15 years ago, it’s not your imagination.
Aging, in and of itself, has been associated with changes in body composition and weight. In general, as women age, lean mass decreases while body fat accumulates. Part of this change is due to the natural change of your metabolism as you age. Another significant factor is lifestyle.
Women tend to become less physically active as they pass from their 40’s into their 50’s. Less physical activity means less calories burned, which inevitably leads to increased weight and fat mass and decreased muscle mass. Another culprit is not adjusting caloric intake to compensate for the reduced metabolism.
Estrogens, often referred to as the “female hormones,” are responsible for your sexual and reproductive development. Produced primarily by the ovaries in women, levels of this hormone plunge when your ovaries shut down.
Reduction in estrogen has a few negative effects on the body’s propensity to store fat. Animal studies have shown that lower estrogen not only increases appetite and food intake, it is also associated with changes in body weight and fat distribution. Coupled with estrogen’s negative effects on your metabolism, which may reduce the rate at which your body burns calories and the efficiency in how your body handles starches and blood sugar, the end result is increased fat storage.
Commonly known as the “stress hormone”, the primary function of cortisol is to help you respond to stress. When cortisol prepares the body for a stressful situation, it often signals the breakdown of muscle tissue to release energy.
Chronic stress, which results in a continuous release of cortisol, has been associated with fat accumulation in the midsection of women. This leads to a vicious cycle as abdominal fat leads to more cortisol production and cortisol continues to promote fat in the abdomen.
To compound the issue, a study found that women in perimenopause and early postmenopause experience elevated nighttime cortisol levels. The study concluded that nighttime production of cortisol is associated with biological changes rather than actual environmental stress. This means that proper sleep and stress management may be important tools to prevent fat storage around the belly.
This leads to one of the most common complaints women have about their bodies after menopause is the loss of their waistline.
While menopause alone has not been found to be directly associated with weight gain, several studies shows that menopause does play a role in many midlife women’s transformation from a pear-shaped figure (wide hips and thighs with more weight below the waist) to an apple shaped body (wide waist/belly with more weight above the hips).
The International Journal of Obesity published a study that investigated how menopause affects body composition and abdominal fat distribution. The study concluded that this period of life is associated with increased total fat mass. Another key finding confirmed “the menopause transition appears to promote the selective accumulation of fat in the intra-abdominal compartment.”
Leptin is known as the “satiety” hormone. Produced by your fat cells, this hormone determines the amount you eat, calories you expend and even how much fat your body stores. Leptin levels are based on the amount of body fat a person has and its primary purpose is to protect you from starvation.
Low levels of leptin signal your brain to increase feelings of hunger which trigger you to eat more while your body burns less energy.
Overall, women have higher leptin levels than men, which makes sense due to women naturally carrying a higher percentage of body fat than men.
It has been found that leptin levels decline significantly in post-menopausal women, regardless of the amount of fat mass. This explains why so many women report an increased appetite during menopause.
Combined with the other menopausal factors of aging, decreased estrogen, increased cortisol and altered fat distribution, this anti-starvation hormone only adds insult to injury for midlife women struggling with weight gain and fat accumulation in all the wrong places.
Absolutely not! While the odds seem to be stacked against you, you can take action to positively change your body composition after menopause. Remember to always consult with your physician before beginning a new exercise or eating plan. Here are some key actions you can take:
All levels of exercise intensity -- light, moderate, and intense -- are highly beneficial to post-menopausal women for impacting body composition.
One study concluded that intense physical activity resulted in significantly lower levels of total body fat in post menopausal women.
Here’s one area in which postmenopausal women have an advantage (finally!): light physical activity has a greater impact on body composition in women after menopause than before. It is important to note this study also found that sedentary lifestyle is more strongly associated with an increase in waist circumference after menopause than before.
The bottom line? Even a little bit of activity on a regular basis makes a big difference. You can benefit from a variety of physical activities from gardening to walking to running.
The same principles apply postmenopause as they do at any age. Strength training increases muscle mass and quality. More muscle mass increases metabolism which may contribute to diminished weight gain and decreased fat mass.
Now more than ever is the time to counteract that loss of muscle mass to prevent a slowdown of that metabolic rate. You should aim for strength training exercises at least two times per week to get the maximum benefit for your muscles.
Keep in mind you may need about 200 calories less per day to maintain your weight in your 50’s than you did in your 30’s due to a decline/decrease in muscle mass. It is important not to take in too few calories as this will lead to muscle loss, which will slow your metabolism.
Aim to pay attention to what you eat and drink. Choose nutritious foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy proteins and fats. Avoid processed foods and limit sweets and alcohol.
Menopause is notoriously a time of challenged sleep, and lack of quality sleep directly affects hormones that alter your body composition (and not in a good way!). Practicing good sleep hygiene may help you get the 7-9 hours of nightly sleep you need. Sleep hygiene refers to habits that promote quality sleep, such as:
Remember that stress hormone called cortisol? Effectively managing stress will reduce your body’s production of cortisol, which will help you avoid negative changes to your body composition. You can’t eliminate stress, but you can do things to help you handle it better. Exercise, meditation, yoga, tai chi, spending time with friends, or just doing things you enjoy are all ways you can manage stress.
While some women dread the arrival of menopause, many embrace the freedom from years of menstrual cramps and bloating. It is true you will likely experience changes during this midlife event -- some not so welcome -- but you can take control of your body composition with simple lifestyle changes.
Understanding the factors contributing to changes in your body composition -- aging, estrogen, cortisol, fat redistribution, and leptin -- is the first step to fighting the battle. Regular physical activity, strength training, proper diet, adequate sleep, and stress management are all proactive things you can do to keep your body in check.
The best thing is that at the same time, you will be warding off health conditions associated with an unhealthy body composition, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Jennifer Boidy, RN is a freelance healthcare content writer who is always on the lookout for innovative technologies that improve health and the delivery of healthcare. Jennifer resides in Manchester, MD with her husband, two teenagers, dog, cat, and plenty of wildlife.