I recently had my annual physical examination, which I get once every seven years, and when the nurse weighed me, I was shocked to discover how much stronger the Earthâ€™s gravitational pull has become since 1990.
Note: I posted this blog earlier this year, but Iâ€™ve had requests to revisit weight gain in midlife.Â There are an incredible number of potential reasons that contribute to why we, as women, gain weight during perimenopause and beyond.Â Stress, habits, environment, emotional eating, hormones, and lack of exercise to name a few we know about.Â I suspect future research will continue to find potential theories on how our amazing bodies work.
The following blog focuses on research that made sense to me. And, although the sources are not circa 2016, I canâ€™t say I have found data that has changed my mind in the ensuing years. Â Keep reading, keep questioning, and keep doing the things that make you feel happy and healthy.Â Here you goâ€¦
Thoughts On Midlife Weight Gain
The American standard of beauty demands women appear slender. Constant onslaughts of media images display the happy, sexy, glamorous lives of women that are a size 0-4. An occasional celebrity goes rogue and has the nerve to show her face in public when she is a blimpish size 6.Â Unflattering photos of the offending woman splash across grocery store tabloids. Outrage! Â Headlines scream â€“ â€œActress balloons to size 8! Family forms deathwatch!â€ Soon the castigated starlet is hawking a diet plan while declaring she is happy to be free of the life-threatening 15 pounds. America, in all its fat hating glory, Â sleeps soundly at night once again.
Is it any wonder girls are beginning to diet at younger and younger ages? Unfortunately, each time we diet our estrogen levels drop, and our cortisol levels rise. The back and forth of gaining and losing weight over the years increases stress on our hormonal systems, and often weakens them to the point of dysfunction. Â When frequent dieters start transitioning into the menopausal years, they tend to gain more weight than women who resisted yo-yo dieting in the first place.
The reality is we are born with more than 30 billion fat cells programmed to help us through lifeâ€™s circumstances. (Waterhouse, 1998, pp. 2-3) Â Research has indicated fat cells have a lot more going on than keeping women out of bikinis. According to an article by Karolinska University, (Fat Cell Research) fat cell properties not only produce hormones, but also include pathogenic factors that aid in the development of metabolic disturbances and secondary diseases. Why should we care as women? Because believe it or not, fat cells ARE our friends.
Hormonal signals tell the fat cells to pad and protect women as they enter puberty, pregnancy, and menopause. At puberty, estrogen surges tell the fat cells to plump the areas of hip, breasts, and thighs. The increase in fat cell size is needed to start menstruation. When a woman becomes pregnant, an estrogen increase allows the fat cells to grow and change to protect the mother and developing fetus. However, unlike puberty and pregnancy, a drop in estrogen signals the beginning of menopause. Our friendly fat cells want women to have a gentle transition, so they actually grow larger to store and produce additional estrogen. It appears this process starts in our 30â€™s, gains speed in the 40â€™s and tapers in the 50â€™s. (Waterhouse, 1998)
Why does fat pool around the waist as menopause appears? According to Waterhouse, the fat cells in the midsection are better prepared to produce estrogen than in other regions of the body.
â€œThe fat cells surround the liver and adrenal glands, which lend a helping hand to produce estrogen. The adrenal glands produce a form of testosterone, the liver produces the enzyme necessary to convert the testosterone to estrogen, and the fat cells surrounding the liver and adrenal glands provide the laboratory to get the job done.â€ â€“ Waterhouse.
Doesnâ€™t that make a chubby, difficult-to-zip-up-the-jeans waist a little more appealing? If not, consider this – it has been documented that women who carry more weight have an easier menopausal transition than those who do not. (Kushi, 2006) The University of Pittsburg found that women with larger fat cells were able to produce 40% more symptom-easing estrogen. While this information is not intended to encourage a mega-calorie trip to the nearest buffet, it does shed light on the mysterious and frustrating weight gain associated with perimenopause and menopause. In fact, weight loss is not recommended during perimenopause and menopause.Â Â Â The body will resist giving up the estrogen storing fat cells. Â The process of attempting to lose weight can trigger many uncomfortable menopausal symptoms. (Kushi) Repeat after meâ€¦we love fat cells. We love fat cells
Per Waterhouse, here are typical female changes by decade:
Â 30â€™s: More PMS symptoms (hide the knives!), cravings for sugar, carbohydrates, and fat increase, weight begins to creep upwards, the waistline expands about an inch, cellulite becomes more noticeable, the breasts seem larger, and there is more fat on the back.
40â€™s: Periods become irregular, cravings for sugar continue to increase, muscle becomes lost at the rate of Â½ pound a year, the average woman has gained an additional 10 – 25 pounds, and the fat cells are expanding to store estrogen. Hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, and headaches are present.
50â€™s: Mood swings begin to even out, memory is getting better, hot flashes decrease, weight begins to stabilize once menstruation stops, and fat cells shrink back to non-storage size.
Fat Cell Research. (n.d.). Retrieved July 2, 2009, from http://www.karolinska.se/en/Research/Profile-Research-Areas/Endocrinology-and-Metobolic-Diseases/Fat
Kushi, G. (2006). Embracing menopause naturally. New York: SquareOne Publishers.
Somers, S. (2004). The Sexy Years. New York: Crown Publishers.
Tieraona Low Dog and Marc S. Micozzi. (2005). Women’s Health in Complementary and Integrative Medicine. Missouri: Churchill,Livingstone-Elsevier.
Waterhouse, D. (1998). Out Smarting the Midlife Fat Cell. New York: MJF Books.