Editor’s Note: This post was updated on October 23, 2018, for accuracy and comprehensiveness. It was originally published on May 27, 2017
Menopause, which literally means the “pause” (end) of your “menses” (period), comes with many natural changes. Some women are lucky enough to skate through this time with no discomfort, while many experience the classic symptoms: fatigue, insomnia, and hot flashes. Reproductive and mood changes. And of course, the metabolic changes that result in weight gain around the torso and buttocks.
This increase in waist size 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? Read on as we answer these questions and more.
The physiological and metabolic changes of menopause
What exactly is happening during menopause? A lot! The transition to menopause, known as perimenopause, takes place over a period of several years. 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 significantly reduced production of the hormones estrogen and progesterone, 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 muscle mass decreases while fat mass 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. A decrease in physical activity means less calories burned, which inevitably leads to increased weight and fat mass and muscle mass loss. 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, estrogen levels plunge when your ovaries stops releasing eggs.
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 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 a decline in reproductive hormones (follicle-stimulating hormone, luteinizing hormone, estrogen, and progesterone) has not yet been directly linked to 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 figure (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, the hormone leptin determines the amount you eat, calories you expend and even how much fat your body stores. Leptin levels are based on an individuals’ fat mass 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 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 metabolic changes, the hormone leptin only adds to the struggle for women trying to control their weight gain and fat accumulation.
Is it a losing battle?
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 lifestyle changes 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 postmenopausal 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? You don’t have to start intense daily endurance and strength training to see improvements. Small lifestyle changes can make a big difference. You can benefit from a variety of physical activities from gardening to walking.
Don’t forget strength training
The same principles apply postmenopause as they do at any age. You can’t forget your about fitness level just because you are aging. Strength training increases muscle mass and quality and helps balance your hormones like your estrogen levels. 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. Consult with a fitness professional to help you get started.
Watch what you eat
To reach your target body composition may require permanent lifestyle changes rather than a stop-gap dieting approach. 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.
Instead of taking a restrictive dieting approach, aim to pay attention to what you eat and drink. Choose nutritious foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy proteins and fats. And make sure you get the extra nutrients you need, like extra protein, to help you build muscle. Avoid processed foods and limit sweets and alcohol.
Get enough sleep
Menopause is notoriously a time of challenged sleep, and lack of quality sleep directly affects hormones that alter your body composition, increasing cortisol levels the next day and may accelerate the development of metabolic consequences. 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:
- Regular exercise, but not too close to bedtime
- Avoiding stimulants, such as caffeine and nicotine, close to bedtime
- Adequate exposure to natural light during the day to maintain sleep-wake cycle
- Avoiding long naps (more than 30 minutes) during the day
- Establishing a relaxing bedtime routine with limited TV time
- Creating a comfortable sleep environment
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, like fat gain and muscle loss. 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 effective strategies to decrease your cortisol levels.
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. At the same time, you will be warding off health conditions associated with an unhealthy body composition, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Regular physical activity, strength training, proper diet, adequate sleep, and stress management are all proactive things you can do to help during this natural aging process and help you enjoy your golden years.
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.