Does Estrogen Cause Weight Gain?

Medically reviewed by Peggy Pletcher, MS, RD, LD, CDE on April 10, 2017Written by Susan York Morris

The “change of life”

If you’re going through perimenopause and menopause, you may find that managing your weight is becoming more difficult than it used to be.

Menopause is called the “change of life” for a reason. During menopause, many women begin to have other changes as well, such as:

  • hot flashes
  • trouble sleeping
  • lower interest in sex

Reduced levels of the female hormone estrogen are the main cause of all of these changes.

Read more: Hot flashes: 6 simple ways to find relief »

Visceral fat

The problem with weight isn’t as simple as just putting on pounds. The bigger problem may be where fat is distributed on your body. Through much of adulthood, women tend to carry fat on their hips and thighs. After menopause, however, women store more fat in the abdominal area.

The fat in this area, called visceral fat, isn’t the subcutaneous (under the skin) fat you feel when you poke your stomach. It’s found deeper in the abdomen, filling the space between the vital organs and the fat-covered membrane that lines your abdominal cavity.

Unlike other fat on your body, visceral fat produces hormones and other substances such as cytokines that can:

  • cause blood vessels to narrow and blood pressure to rise
  • increase insulin resistance, which reduces your body’s ability to use insulin effectively
  • trigger inflammation, which is linked to a range of conditions, including heart disease
  • contribute to sexual dysfunction
  • increase your risk of getting some cancers

After menopause, your cells store more fat and are slower to release it. Also, you have less muscle mass, so your body doesn’t burn calories as effectively as it once did.

What is estrogen?

Estrogen and progesterone are the two primary female sex hormones. These chemicals are produced mainly in your ovaries, but are also produced or converted into forms of estrogen in other places such as:

There are several different kinds of estrogen. Each type has a bigger role at a different stage of a woman’s life.

Estrone

Estrone is a weaker type of estrogen. It’s produced primarily in the ovaries and fat tissue. Estrone is the only type of estrogen that women have in any sizeable amount after menopause.

Estradiol

Estradiol is the most active type of estrogen. It’s most important during the years when a woman is menstruating. Estradiol is believed to have a role in gynecological problems such as endometriosis and reproductive cancers.

Estriol

Estriol is the weakest kind of estrogen. It’s associated mostly with pregnancy. Some researchers believe it has anticancer properties, according to a report in Harvard Health Publications. Others point to its potential to treat multiple sclerosis, according to the Mayo Clinic. These claims are controversial, as the Food and Drug Administration has not approved any drug containing estriol. It warns that the safety and effectiveness of estriol are unknown.

What does estrogen do?

Estrogen, progesterone, and other hormones have important roles throughout a woman’s life.

Puberty

When a girl reaches puberty, her body begins producing estrogen. Estrogen helps with the development of breasts and the maturation of the reproductive organs. It also signals the start of menstruation.

Menstruation

During the menstrual cycle, estrogen and progesterone levels climb. This helps create a lining in the uterus in preparation for implantation of a fertilized egg. If an egg is not implanted, these hormone levels drop and the uterine lining is shed as a woman’s period.

Pregnancy and breastfeeding

Throughout pregnancy, the placenta contributes to the rising hormone levels in the body. The high level of hormones is needed for the health of the baby and the pregnancy. Almost immediately after childbirth, estrogen and progesterone levels drop to their prepregnancy state. Hormone levels remain low during the time while women are breastfeeding.

Perimenopause and menopause

As you age, your ovaries stop making eggs. During perimenopause, the period of time leading to the end of menstruation, hormones tend to fluctuate. After a woman hasn’t had a period for one year, she has completed menopause. Then her estrogen and progesterone levels will remain low.

Lifelong functions

Estrogen has other functions throughout a woman’s life, including:

  • helping to build bones and contributing to bone strength
  • controlling cholesterol, possibly by helping increase the levels of good (HDL) cholesterol
  • increasing the blood supply to the skin and the thickness of the skin
  • helping to regulate moods and possibly control depression and anxiety

Conditions that affect estrogen

In addition to perimenopause and menopause, these other conditions and factors can affect your estrogen levels.

Childbirth and breastfeeding

Estrogen levels drop after childbirth and remain low while you’re breastfeeding. This is believed to support the production of milk. However, some symptoms of low estrogen can be troubling, such as depression, anxiety, and a reduced interest in sex.

Bilateral oophorectomy

This is a surgical procedure in which the ovaries are removed. In effect, this causes menopause.

Anorexia

Extreme restriction of calories in this eating disorder can reduce estrogen levels and stop the menstrual cycle.

Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS)

When you have PCOS, your levels of estrogen and progesterone are out of balance. This can lead to:

  • ovarian cysts
  • disruption of the menstrual cycle
  • fertility problems
  • irregular cardiac function
  • insulin resistance

Vigorous exercise or training

Extreme exercise often reduces both body fat and estrogen levels.

Symptoms of Low Estrogen

  • irregular or skipped menstrual periods
  • hot flashes
  • vaginal dryness
  • difficulty sleeping
  • depression or anxiety
  • less desire for sex
  • dry skin
  • memory problems

Learn more: What are the symptoms of low estrogen? »

Weight management

Maintaining a healthy weight after menopause can reduce abdominal fat, as well as your risk for conditions such as:

Exercise also gives a boost to mood and energy.

Activity

The American Heart Association recommends that you get at least 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderate exercise each week. This is equal to 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week. Reduce that to 75 minutes a week if you exercise vigorously.

Examples of moderate exercise include:

  • walking
  • riding a bike on level ground
  • dancing
  • mowing the yard

Examples of vigorous exercise include:

  • tennis
  • running
  • aerobics
  • hiking uphill

Strength exercise is also important because it helps build muscle mass, regulate blood sugar, and lower blood pressure. Strength exercise include:

  • heavy gardening
  • lifting weights
  • resistance exercises, such as situps and squats

Diet

Try these tips to make sure you eat a healthy diet to help you manage your weight and reduce abdominal fat:

  • Eat a balanced diet of unprocessed or less processed whole foods.
  • Focus on high fiber grains, healthy plant-based fats, and high quality proteins, including fatty fish.
  • Eat a variety of colorful vegetables and whole fruits daily.
  • Skip sugary soda and juice.
  • Limit your alcohol intake.

Learn more: How your diet affects your hormones during menopause »

Outlook

For most women, diet and exercise are effective in reducing the negative impact of low estrogen levels and the fat that settles around the midsection.

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