“Are my hormones causing my belly fat?” Your questions answered

Woman holding her belly

Have you have started to have that sneaking feeling that your middle is getting a little thicker and your jeans a little tighter? If you are seeing other symptoms creep in related to perimenopause too, then it’s very likely the Big P is also to blame for the belly fat you are seeing. 

This relatively sudden increase in belly fat can be frustrating and even leave you feeling self conscious. For many women, the tempting thing is to diet more, and exercise harder – but that could make things even worse as the sudden drop in calories and increased demand in energy from your body unsettles your hormones. Instead, you feel like you are in a never-ending cycle that disconnects you further from your body.

“When I was 43, I started to see changes in my body. My skin was a little drier, my face a bit puffier, and I started to struggle to do up my favorite pants that had always fit like a glove. I bought lotions and potions for my face and skin, increased my activity and ate less than I had for years but things just got worse and worse. Soon, I was going up a size and I felt like a stranger in my own body. I was so confused and sad.” – Jolene

As we enter our midlife years, perimenopause can bring about a number of symptoms and changes. For some women these will be mild and non-eventful, but many of us will experience varying challenging issues during this phase of our lives as our hormones are out of balance. One symptom that can feel particularly difficult is weight gain – especially the belly area.

Weight is a sensitive topic for many women and gaining weight, especially during a mentally vulnerable time of our lives, can leave us feeling defensive. It’s important to be aware of the risks of menopausal weight gain however – and know how to manage by rebalancing your hormones for your overall health.

How do hormones cause my belly fat?

Q: “I’ve a feeling that my hormones are contributing to my mid-weight gain but I want to understand more about the imbalance. Is it related to estrogen?” 

HU: We are starting to understand more and more the role of endocrinology in women’s health, although research is still needed into this area. What we do know though is that hormonal weight gain is a common side effect of the imbalance and decline in hormones during perimenopause. In particular, declining estrogen can contribute to weight gain, especially in the belly area which can feel hard to get rid of. If you have recently gained weight in your midsection particularly, and feel that you haven’t changed your routine or diet in a way that would cause this to happen, then it’s likely that you are experiencing a shift in your hormonal balance.

Research suggests that estrogen plays a crucial role in regulating metabolism and fat distribution in women. As estrogen levels decrease, women may experience a shift in fat storage towards the abdominal area, leading to an increase in visceral fat. Visceral fat is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases and insulin resistance. Therefore, rebalancing your hormones is important – this is an obvious sign that you need to address your declining levels.

How do I know if my belly fat is because of perimenopause?

Q: Over the last three months, I’ve definitely felt it’s harder to button my pants. I’ve started to get a few peri symptoms but nothing major. So, my question is – how do you know if the weight gain is actually related to perimenopause, or if it’s something else?

HU: It’s really worth stressing that many perimenopausal women experience a change in their weight during perimenopause. Determining whether weight gain is linked to perimenopause involves paying attention to specific signs and changes in your body. If you’re in your 40s and notice irregularities in your menstrual cycle, such as variations in flow or the onset of irregular periods, it could be an early indication of perimenopause.

Hormonal symptoms, like hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, and disruptions in sleep patterns, are common during this transitional phase and may contribute to belly fat. Moreover, perimenopause often brings about changes in body composition, with many women experiencing an increase in abdominal fat. If you observe a shift in where your body tends to store fat, especially towards the midsection, it could be associated with hormonal changes typical of perimenopause.

If you are unsure whether any of the symptoms you are experiencing might be related to perimenopause, you can order blood work from your physician or seek out specific hormone testing to monitor your levels.

Can I stop weight gain during perimenopause?

Q: “Help me, HU! How do I stop this creeping belly fat? It’s making me so self conscious and it feels like there’s nothing I can do to shift it!” 

Don’t worry, you aren’t alone! Many women feel exactly the same as you. But the good news is that there are ways that you can manage weight gain, even during perimenopause – but it’s important to say that you need to adopt a holistic approach that includes hormone therapies, mental wellbeing, movement and diet – this isn’t the time to punish your body as that can have a negative impact on your body as it increases cortisol and we know that contributes to the way our body stores fat.

Here are our top tips:

Balanced Nutrition: Eat a well-rounded, nutrient-dense diet focused on whole foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains to support overall health and combat weight gain.

Regular Exercise: Look for low intensity activities such as aerobic exercises, ie. walking or jogging, and strength training activities to maintain muscle mass, boost metabolism, and prevent perimenopausal weight gain. Having fun with your activity is important too as it lowers cortisol, the stress hormone. Why not try classes for belly dancing, or even hula-hooping that will also nurture your pelvic floor too?

Stress Management: Practice stress-reducing techniques like meditation, yoga, or deep breathing exercises including somatic therapy to minimize cortisol levels, which can contribute to abdominal weight gain during perimenopause. When your body is in fight or flight mode, it retains and stores fat ‘just in case’ to help you cope with a perceived threat. We often overlook the importance of reducing stress on our whole health but if you are struggling with belly fat, this is an important area to prioritize.

Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT): Hormone replacement therapy helps to rebalance your hormone levels and will help with improving declining estrogen levels that often are the underlying cause for mid-section weight gain. Look for bio-identical HRT than will support your natural hormones. Many women anec

Hydration: We can’t stress enough the importance of drinking water throughout the day. Staying well-hydrated helps to support metabolic function, control appetite, and prevent mistaking thirst for hunger, which can lead to unnecessary calorie intake.

How much weight do women gain in perimenopause on average?

Q: “How much weight should I expect to gain in menopause? I feel like I need to know what the average amount is.”

HU: As you might expect, there really is no specific “average” weight gain during perimenopause that universally applies to all women. Weight changes and belly fat during perimenopause can vary significantly from person to person and depend on various factors, including genetics, lifestyle, diet, and physical activity levels. We’re all unique, even in menopause!

While some of us may experience weight gain during perimenopause, others may not see any significant changes and maintain a similar weight profile to their pre-menopausal levels. Hormonal fluctuations, particularly the decline in estrogen, can influence the distribution of body fat, often leading to increased belly fat, but even this is a spectrum with a wide range and we individually  respond to perimenopausal hormonal changes differently.

It’s important to recognize that weight gain during perimenopause is not inevitable, and adopting a healthy lifestyle, including a balanced diet and regular exercise, can help manage weight and promote overall well-being.

Will HRT help with weight loss?

Q: “If I take HRT, will it get rid of my belly fat and help me manage my weight?”

HU: It’s important to say that Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) is primarily prescribed to alleviate symptoms of hormonal imbalance during menopause and perimenopause, such as hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, and sleep disturbances. While some studies suggest that HRT might have a modest impact on body composition, including a potential reduction in abdominal fat, it is not typically prescribed as a weight loss treatment.

The influence of HRT on weight can vary from woman to woman. As we’ve spoken about above, estrogen, one of the hormones commonly included in HRT, plays a important role in regulating body fat distribution, and restoring estrogen levels may contribute to changes in body composition. However, any weight-related effects are generally modest, and individual responses to HRT can differ as we all respond differently to hormone fluctuation and replacement therapy.

It’s important to note that the decision to use HRT should be made in consultation with your physician, taking into account your overall health, medical history, and individual symptoms.

Can supplements containing phytoestrogen help with weight management?

Q: I’m really keen to know if supplements can help with balancing hormones to manage my belly fat gain. I’m not sure I’m ready for HRT just yet, so can supplements that contain plant-based estrogen help?”

HU: This is a great question. Phytoestrogens, plant compounds with estrogen-like properties, may offer support in weight management during perimenopause by interacting with estrogen receptors and potentially alleviating symptoms associated with hormonal decline. By mimicking estrogenic effects, phytoestrogens might contribute to more stable appetite regulation and help prevent overeating, addressing one aspect of weight gain during perimenopause.

The metabolic effects of phytoestrogens, such as potential improvements in insulin sensitivity and anti-inflammatory properties, have also shown a role in supporting overall metabolic health and reducing the risk of weight gain. Common sources of phytoestrogens include soy products, flaxseeds, sesame seeds, and whole grains. However, individual responses may vary, and consulting with a healthcare professional before incorporating phytoestrogens into your routine is advisable to ensure their suitability based on your health status and provide personalized guidance.

Topical supplementation, such as Glow by Hormone University’s Menopause SOS can help alleviate symptoms of menopause and help balance hormones. This includes belly fat gain as well as mood swings, hot flashes and brain fog. Topical application increases absorption via the epidermis, meaning that you can maximise the benefits of the supplement. And there’s nothing to take orally that will mess with your gut!

What are the risks associated with belly fat?

Q: “I’ve heard that belly fat can increase health risks – but I’m unsure how. Can you explain?”

HU: Excess belly fat during perimenopause poses a few significant health risks. These include an increased likelihood of cardiovascular disease (ie, your heart) due to the inflammatory and insulin-resistant properties of visceral fat. But that’s not all. Abdominal obesity is associated with a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, due to the way visceral fat contributes to insulin resistance and elevated blood sugar levels. The hormonal imbalances already present during perimenopause can also be further exacerbated by the accumulation of belly fat, impacting overall well-being and hinder management of your symptoms.

Even more seriously, abdominal obesity has been linked to heightened risks such as an increased likelihood of postmenopausal breast cancer, sleep apnea, reduced bone density, and psychological challenges related to self-esteem and body image. Mitigating these risks involves prioritizing lifestyle changes, including a balanced diet, regular exercise, and stress management.

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