Menopause – Why do women gain weight?

Menopause – Why do women gain weight? 960 642 Janie

Have you ever wondered why women gain weight once they reach menopause? It seems to be very common, with most women finding abdominal fat the main issue.

As a peri-menopausal woman myself I have noticed huge changes in my metabolism and the way my body stores fat, and I have been trying to understand what is going on physiologically, and therefore how I can help other women maintain their weight during this challenging time.

Dr Jack Kruse has given me an answer – and the answer is very surprising and ground-breaking, but makes perfect sense. His recent article on How Women Gain Time at Menopause is fascinating (and very sciencey).

In this article I have done my best to summarise this very complex issues into bite size chunks that are easier to understand. (Click here to read the original article)

Menopausal women actually metabolise energy very differently to women of child-bearing age and this is the reason they are prone to weight gain – and it’s all got to do with what their primary source of energy is.

Humans get our energy from food and from sunlight (just like plants create energy via photosynthesis, our cells are also able to harvest energy from the sun). We are in effect a large solar powered battery – our body uses the sun to create a “charge” which powers us and our daily activities.

Food is the main source of energy for most of us and when we create energy from food oxidation occurs – oxidation is the primary source of human ageing. On the other hand, when our bodies create energy from the sun, no oxidation occurs, meaning we age less.

When women are of child-bearing age they rely predominantly on food as their energy source – this is because they need energy stores for child-bearing and they also need to communicate to their offspring what food will be present in the environment when they are born. But because using food as a primary energy source ages us faster, nature came up with a very clever way to win back some years later in life.

Estrogen levels drop by 90% when a woman reaches menopause, and this triggers the release of ferritin into the blood stream. Ferritin is a safe way for the body to hold iron – which can be toxic on its own. UV light from the sun stimulates the ferritin to release its iron and this free iron is “charged” to create energy in the body.

So in effect, once we reach menopause we become much more efficient as creating the energy that we need to live from the sun. Therefore, we need less food.

However, for this brilliant natural system to work as nature intended, we need a couple of things to happen – we need exposure to the sun, and we need to eat less food. If we don’t we will see the results in our waistline.

There are a few other things that are required for our solar battery to work:

  • Water – just like the battery in your car, energy flow through the human body requires water.
  • DHA (Omega 3 fatty acid) – cell membranes need omega-3 fatty acids (from fish and seafood) to maintain the energy flow.
  • Natural orange light. Blue light (from TV/computer/phone screens) dehydrates our cells and stops energy flow across the cell membranes.

So how do you know how well your battery is operating? By your Vitamin D3 levels. Low vitamin D3 means your battery is not charged and almost 40% of Australian women have vitamin D deficiency! The other indication is low iron levels – because ferritin is not releasing its iron (it is awaiting activation from the sun). As an interesting side note excess ferritin/low free iron is strongly linked to hot flushes.

An important point is that when the female body switches from using primarily food to sun for their energy, their need to eat food will reduce dramatically, hence why so many menopausal women find their appetite reduces. But most of us still try to eat the amount of food we have always eaten.

What then happens when we don’t get enough sun?

Time to overlay my own personal experiences onto this discussion.

The last 2 weeks we have had relentless rain in the Blue Mountains and I have noticed my belly fat seems to have appeared very quickly.

I have been able to effortlessly maintain my weight my whole life and have eaten large quantities of food to support my training and running. In the last year or so – as my cycle started to become irregular and erratic – this is no longer the case. I more easily put on weight – especially around my stomach, and I have to stay on top of this.

I have been listening closely to my body and as a result I have to eat A LOT less than I used to. In particular my body wants less meat and craves lighter food like salads and vegetables. I used to eat the same size steak as my husband – whereas now I will be lucky to eat one half the size. I can now see this is because my body is starting to use the sun instead to fulfill my energy needs.

But in the last 2 weeks my appetite has increased – probably because there has been less sun to create energy from – however this extra food consumption seems to get quickly translated into belly fat.

And this brings me to something else important – aside from a slight increase in abdominal fat I have no other menopause symptoms.  But I am out in the sun all the time. I train, run and walk in the sun – at least 2 hours every day – usually more. I don’t wear sunscreen unless I think I am going to burn (usually after about 2-3 hours in the sun) and I never wear sunglasses. Can this explain my lack of menopausal symptoms? Is sunlight (in addition to eating real, whole foods) the key to going through a healthy, trouble-free menopause?

But isn’t the sun bad for us?

The irony is that mainstream medicine tells us to get out of the sun because supposedly it ages us – whereas this discussion proposes that the sun slows down ageing for a menopausal woman!

A dig into the research on sun exposure indicates that although reducing sun exposure does decrease melanoma risk, it greatly increases all-cause mortality. Sunlight protects against cardiovascular disease – and for every one skin cancer death, between 60 and 100 people die from stroke or heart disease.

It is true that too much sun exposure, and especially sun burns, contribute to skin cancer. But the message to avoid the sun altogether may be misguided. Our increasing knowledge about vitamin D, the sun, and how they affect our immune system has us re-thinking the recommendation to avoid the sun completely.” (reference)

To summarise:

Menopausal women need to eat less because they are more efficient at creating their energy needs from the sun. So we get fatter because we are eating more than we need to for our energy requirements.

What if you can’t get out into the sun because you sit in an office all day?  Can you get out into the sun more? Take more breaks? Walking meetings? Go outside at lunch time?

What about when the sun is not out – like the last 2 weeks. Do we still eat less? I would suggest that when the sun is not out and appetite increases, eat lighter foods and make sure fish and seafood are a regular part of your diet.

ACTION POINTS

  • Stay hydrated – 1L per 30kg of body weight is a good guide.
  • Eat more fish and seafood – especially when the sun is not out.
  • Get out in the sun without sunscreen for as long as you can as often as you can – tan safely without burning. Build up to a safe tan – get to the point just before you are about to turn pink and get out of the sun or cover up. Every time you do this you will be able to go longer and longer in the sun. Only wear sunglasses when absolutely necessary.
  • Reduce portion sizes – often drastically! Eat lighter – less meat, more salad and vegetables, still making sure you are getting enough protein and fat- from real, whole foods sources.
  • Stay active – walk in the sun!
  • Stay away from the artificial blue light from TV, computer and phone screens. You can try a free app like f.lux which will make the screen a warmer orange.