Estrogen and Weight Gain: What's the Connection?
Many menopausal women experience weight gain, especially around the abdomen. Estrogen loss is partially to blame, but there are ways to fight back.
Aug 13, 2019Obesity
Sheryl Kraft, a freelance writer and breast cancer survivor, was born in Long Beach, New York. She currently lives in Connecticut with her husband Alan and dog Chloe, where her nest is empty of her two sons Jonathan. Sheryl writes articles and essays on breast cancer and contributes to a variety of publications and websites where she writes on general health and wellness issues. She earned her MFA in writing from Sarah Lawrence College in 2005.Full Bio
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You may be asking, "What's estrogen's role in weight gain?" And you'd be right to ask that.
You can't win, can you? When estrogen is high, it causes problems.
When it's high, it's partially to blame for things you're likely familiar with—like irregular periods, heavy bleeding, PMS, endometriosis, fibroids, fatigue, mood changes and sometimes breast or ovarian cancer.
And when it's low, it affects us, too.
Much of the same—missed or irregular periods, infertility, mood changes.
Ahem, anything else? There's more, I'm sure.
Related to menopause, yes, there's more. Weak bones, for one. Hot flashes for another. And then there's an increase in urinary tract infections and—the elephant in the room—
Lemme guess … weight gain.
Sorry, yes, but you already knew that. Low estrogen levels can, and do, contribute to weight gain in many menopausal women.
So, what really happens?
It's not uncommon for women to notice that they're gaining weight or it's more difficult to lose weight. The form of estrogen known as estradiol decreases during menopause. Estradiol helps regulate your metabolism and your body weight. Hence, the weight issues.
And why does that weight like to gather around the mid-section, rather than the hips and thighs? I'm suddenly an "apple" and no longer a "pear."
Although more research needs to be done, some has shown that "perimenopause, independent of age, is associated with increased fat in the abdomen as well as decreased lean body mass," according to the website menopause.org. That's apparently where this type of fat likes to migrate.
OK, break it to me. Why is it particularly dangerous to be an apple rather than a pear?
It's because there's more than just meets the eye: Belly fat is not just that extra layer of padding you see below your skin (known as subcutaneous fat). It's also visceral fat, which is the fat hiding where you can't see it—deep inside your belly, surrounding your internal organs.
Visceral fat is linked to many health problems that are potentially dangerous, like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol and even an increased risk of premature death (regardless of your overall weight).
What do the experts have to say?
While some blame low estrogen for weight gain, others point to other midlife factors that take place around the same time as menopause, like the fact that women become less active and more sedentary (many midlife women—including this one—beg to differ) and a natural slowing of metabolism.
Sounds like low estrogen and weight gain is a done deal.
Certainly not. There's strong evidence that physical activity and a good, healthful diet with sensible portions can offset much of the weight gain that appears during this time of life. Read Dr. Barb DePree's tips to help menopausal women manage their weight.
You may also have to kick it up a notch and exercise more often than you're used to, but it'll pay off. Make sure to include strength training in that exercise regimen, because it helps boost metabolism and increase muscle mass that we also lose with age. Learn about fighting back with exercise.
And since studies show that sitting is linked to higher levels of abdominal fat, you'll do yourself a favor if you stay vertical when you're able. Stand more, sit less and move around more often. (A standing desk is great for people who sit while they work; so is pacing while you're talking on the phone.)
Oh, there's one other thing: Aim for a good, solid night's sleep. Sleep deprivation activates the hormones leptin and ghrelin, which are responsible for regulating your hunger and appetite.