Up until their mid-to-late 30s, most women cannot blame their hormones for unexplained weight gain. Once perimenopause and menopause enters the picture, however, hormones including progesterone and estrogen can wreak havoc on a woman’s physique and self-esteem. Formerly taut stomachs become muffin tops spilling over onto formerly well-fitting jeans. Even many women who maintain a healthy lifestyle with regular workouts, who never had a weight problem, see the numbers make a continual upward climb on their bathroom scale during this time.
Hormonal Check-Up – “Many women in menopause experience difficulty achieving weight loss, and it’s often due to hormonal changes, particularly estrogen,” says Dr. Cecilia Lacayo, a wellness physician for The Wellness & Hormone Centers of America. “After menopause, estrogen levels decline significantly resulting in a slow metabolism, deterioration of muscle mass, insulin resistance and elevated blood sugar levels. This can lead to increased fat storage, particularly in the abdomen, hips and thighs.” Dr. Lacayo says that women experiencing weight gain that is resistant to a low calorie diet and exercise should schedule an appointment with a hormonal specialist to see if supplementation is appropriate for them.
“Hormones have a major impact on weight gain and must be balanced and optimized for menopausal women to achieve success with their weight loss efforts,” says Dr. Lacayo. “Insulin, cortisol, thyroid hormone, and the sex hormones (estrogen, progesterone and testosterone) all play vital roles in metabolism, food cravings and controlling how and where fat is stored and used. If your hormone levels are off, it doesn’t matter how well you eat or how much you exercise, you will simply not achieve the results you are looking for.”
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) used to be a standard treatment for menopausal women but a large clinical trial found that the treatment posed some health risks including heart disease, stroke, blood clots and breast cancer. Subsequent clinical trials indicated that hormone therapy may be a good choice for certain women depending on their individual risk factors. Reviewing risk factors with an endocrinologist is recommended for any women considering HRT.
Quality of Food Counts – “Counting calories does help many menopausal women lose weight,” says Dr. Aristotle Economou whose California practice focuses on delivering a holistic, multi-disciplinary approach to medical care. “However, the biochemistry in the body relies more on the quality and source of the calories being eaten. If your body is unable to absorb and efficiently burn a low-calorie food, the odds of weight gain will increase even though the diet was changed. Simply, put, eating foods that your body can’t easily burn off will increase weight; it’s a case of quality over quantity.”
“Food should be organic, unprocessed and free of GMO’s, pesticides and other harmful substances,” says Dr. Lacayo. “Many of the chemicals found in foods today lead to alterations in estrogen metabolism. We recommend focusing on eating lots of vegetables, some fruit and adequate amounts of high quality animal and plant based proteins and fats.”
“Any form of carbohydrate that you eat is broken down into glucose during the digestive process,” adds Dr. Lacayo. “You want to ensure you are consuming grains, fruits, and vegetable with a low-glycemic index to avoid spikes in your blood sugar that can interfere with weight loss. Sugar is a significant hormone modulator, and can be an underlying cause of progesterone deficiency. It is also important to investigate the reason behind sugar cravings. Testosterone deficiency has been shown to induce cravings for sugar and salt.”
Higher Stress = Bigger Waist Line – Higher stress levels mixed with the hormonal imbalance also impede weight loss. “Cortisol is a major stress hormone, which over time, can result in adrenal burnout resulting in abdominal weight gain,” says Dr. Economou. “When cortisol levels are too high, it triggers the body’s flight or fight response which results in the desire for more calories because it thinks you are in trouble and need the extra food to flee from a ‘predator.’” Dr. Economou recommends Qi Gong or yoga to help calm the stress response associated with menopause.
ZZZZ’s Count – “High quality sleep is essential for everyone but can become difficult to achieve during times of stress, pain or hormonal imbalance,” says Barbara Searles, a holistic coach and author. “Sleep is when your body’s natural healing process occurs, so it’s the time when hormones are likely to re-balance themselves. When I work with women who have chronic pain, they often find that the Epson salt bath they’re taking for muscle pain relief also helps them sleep better. The magnesium in Epsom salts naturally relaxes our nervous and muscular systems. Plus, it is a ritual that stressed out women in their 40s and 50s can use to nurture themselves during tough times. You only need twenty minutes in a warm to hot bath to gain the benefits. Turn the lights down, light a candle, and plan to go directly to sleep after.”
Mix Up Exercise – “Action steps for someone on a low-calorie diet and exercising is to mix up the exercise routine,” advises Dr. Economou. “The body will adapt to the same daily approach to exercise and requires more challenge. Cross-training is a great choice. If you are on the treadmill for thirty minutes, try alternating to 10 minutes treadmill, 10 minutes stationary bike and 10 minutes on the elliptical. Try adding some outdoor jogging. You will be amazed at how much more energy you burn when you are pushing yourself forward off the ground with each step instead of letting the treadmill move beneath your feet as you only lift the foot with each step.”
“High intensity interval training is a highly efficient way to torch calories and build muscle in a short period of time,” says Dr. Lacayo. “Alternating intense bursts of exercise with short periods of rest not only burns more calories than steady-state aerobic activity, it helps to preserve muscle mass, increases your body’s ability to utilize oxygen and insulin, and improves cardiovascular health. It also stimulates your body’s production of human growth hormone by up to 450%, which increases muscle tone, improves bone density, and reverses the aging process.”
“When you increase your heart rate your body releases the ‘Happy Hormones,’ the neuro-chemicals: serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine,” says Dr. Economou. “Your body also releases a protein called the Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) that has the ability to repair the cellular damage caused by stress and depression; both common symptoms of menopause.”
Exercise Regularly – “Menopausal women should exercise at least 30 minutes a day 4 times a week,” recommends Dr. Lacayo. “The effects of hormone replacement therapy wards off fatigue and increases energy. Women taking hormone replacement therapy may increase their workouts to 1 hour a day, 4-6 days a week.”
Go topical for Pain Relief! Working out can results in aches and pains but it is important to ensure that any pain relief options are safe. “Acetaminophen has a narrow therapeutic window, meaning the difference between a safe and effective dose and an overdose, which could lead to liver toxicity, is a relatively small increment in milligram consumption,” says Dr. Aristotle Economou, author and acclaimed Beverly Hills physician. “Topical pain relievers such as creams, gels and sprays work locally and largely reduce, although they do not entirely eliminate the systemic risk that OTC pain pills can present. The Salonpas patches are the first and only topical non-steroidal anti-inflammatories approved through the FDA’s rigorous New Drug Application process which is the same process used to approve prescription medicines.”
Keep Hydrated – “Every system in your body needs adequate hydration, including hormones,” says Searles. “I recommend to my patients that they consume at least 1 ounce of water per kilogram of body weight every day, more if they are engaging in exercise or activities that cause them to sweat,” says Dr. Lacayo. “Coffee, tea, and other caffeinated beverages do not count towards daily water intake because of their diuretic effect, which causes an increase in fluid loss.”
Open Your Meridians – “Another natural approach to the imbalances of hormone fluctuation is laser acupuncture which helps balance the body’s meridian system associated with the symptoms of menopause,” says Dr. Economou. “Meridians are energy pathways in your body that have been used therapeutically for over 5,000 years in Eastern medicine. Blockage or interference in these meridian pathways can result in energetic imbalances that may contribute to negative health conditions or symptoms such as hot flashes or night sweats. The primary goal of acupuncture treatment is to restore energetic balance and proper energy flow to these meridians, thus allowing your body to function normally and return to health naturally. The fear of needles is no longer a problem since they are now being replaced with the soft laser that is completely painless and safe.”