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What Causes Weight Gain in Perimenopause?

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Outside of the mood swings and a general sense that I was tipping the sanity scales a wee bit too far at times, I would have to say that for me personally, stubborn weight gain has been the most difficult and frustrating symptom of perimenopause.

I have a small frame.  I am also very tall – nearly 5’10.  Until I gave birth to my first child at the age of 34, my all time heaviest weight was 133 lbs.  That’s right.  I am 5’10 and the most I have weighed in my entire life – pregnancy notwithstanding - was 133 lbs.

It’s not like I didn’t try to gain weight.  Trust me.  I did.  But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t. However, all of that changed after the birth of my last child in my early 40s, when I began to enter perimenopause.

Now, at age 55 and fully menopausal, I not only weigh more than I have ever weighed (even while pregnant) in my entire life; but it takes an extraordinary amount of effort to not gain weight. So what gives?  Why do women grow their own flotation device around their mid-sections once they reach middle-age and menopause?  And more importantly, what the heck can we do about it?

It’s Your Hormones, Stupid

In his book, From Belly Fat to Belly Flat: How Your Hormones Are Adding Inches to Your Waist and Subtracting Years from Your Life,  Dr. C.W. Randolph illustrates the link between estrogen dominance and belly fat in women.

According to Dr. Randolph, it has little to do with your ability to diet, limit carbohydrates, or even exercise, though all of these things are certainly important. The bigger factor (pardon the pun) causing stubborn weight gain in middle-aged women is too much estrogen, says Dr. Randolph.

Up until their mid to late 30s, most women live in relative harmony with their hormones. Regular menstrual cycles come and go approximately every 28 to 33 days. Weight is stable. Libido is normal, and moods are tempered with the calming, antidepressant effects of balanced estrogen.

Somewhere around her early to mid 40s, when a woman enters perimenopause, her progesterone levels begin to fluctuate and drop.  Prior to perimenopause, progesterone levels fluctuate and drop as well – hence the bothersome PMS symptoms many women suffer with during their years of menses.

But the fluctuations during perimenopause are much more severe and erratic, and are also the basis of the weight gain problem in middle-age, according to Dr. Randolph.

The Estrogen-Fat Cells-Estrogen-Merry-Go-Round

When progesterone levels drop, estrogen levels become dominant.  When estrogen is dominant, an entire bevy of unintended consequences can occur: mood swings, irritability, rage, tender breasts, bloating, headaches, fatigue, and even weight gain.

Excess estrogen increases body fat.  Fat tissue produces and stores more estrogen. The estrogen in turn, causes the body to increase fat tissue. If the cycle is not interrupted, fat tissue will continue to produce estrogen, and estrogen will continue to produce fat tissue.

To add further insult to injury, estrogen dominance also renders your body unable to use fat stores for energy.  So, no matter how much you exercise, or how little you eat, the fat will not go away.  Furthermore, unmitigated estrogen also impacts how your body distributes the fat.  For women, it stores around the abdomen, hips, waist, and thighs.

Eating to Break the Estrogen-Fat-Producing Cycle

It does seem like a contradiction to suggest that in order to lose weight one must eat.  But, that is certainly the case.  When it comes to addressing weight gain due to hormone imbalance, this is especially true.

In Dr. Randolph's book, protein and healthy fats at every meal help lay the foundation for busting belly fat, in addition to cruciferous vegetables, citrus fruits, and lignans (antioxidants and phytoestrogens found in a variety of plant sources.)

Certain foods naturally decrease the body’s estrogen load – belly blaster foods, as Dr. Randolph calls them. Insoluble fibers, for example, such as whole-wheat bread, barley, brown rice, and a variety of seeds, actually bind to excess estrogen in the digestive tract, and are then excreted by the body.

Vitamin supplements, regular exercise, water, healthy sleep patterns, and knowing which foods and beverages to avoid, round out the plan to help you win the battle of the bulge.

Change Doesn’t Come Easy

Discovering that a life time of eating habits which have served you relatively well have now become your metabolic nemesis in middle-age is not exactly welcoming news, I know. Couple this with the fact that most middle-aged people are pretty set in their ways, and the challenge of changing lifelong eating habits can seem utterly daunting.

Dr. Randolph makes the task relatively easy in my view.  The recipes he provides in his book do not require special ingredients – everything can be found in your local grocery store - and he takes a very balanced and realistic view in matters of health.

Of course, it is up to us to take the initiative to put the plan in motion.  But, if you're looking for a sensible approach to help you eat that elephant, From Belly Fat to Belly Flat, won't steer you wrong.

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About the Author

Magnolia is dedicated to empowering women to take responsibility for their own health.

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