Menopausal weight gain is one of the more frustrating elements of this rather (at times) challenging phase. What women don’t realise that many years of bad habits centred around food and exercise may culminate in increased hormone dysfunction and menopausal symptoms so it is well worthwhile to read this article whatever age you are. If you get your diet and lifestyle choices right as a teenager and continue them throughout life you will avoid many of the more uncomfortable symptoms that go with the period of perimenopause and menopause.
Blood sugar balance is the key to avoiding weight gain at any age and is particularly important as we approach our change of life. A high sugar diet or consuming too many refined carbohydrates can result in an imbalance in our blood glucose hormone, insulin. The body tries to maintain a supply of glucose in the blood at all times. If the blood glucose gets too high, the body finds a way to bring it back down again. If it gets too low, the body will manufacture it to return it the levels optimal for energy production. This process is going on all day every day and even as we sleep. Have you found that you are reacting to carbohydrates more than you used to? Do you find that hot flushes are triggered by a high carbohydrate meal? Do you find that a plate of pasta for dinner now keeps you from sleeping through the night and you wake up bloated and hotter than ever? A bad diet is something you can get away with in your twenties but it catches up with you in your 40s and will be kicking your butt by the time you reach menopause.
Our blood glucose levels naturally rise after every meal as the food we consume is broken down into glucose. Glucose is used by the cells to produce energy. The rise in glucose in the blood is communicated to the brain, which signals the pancreas to release insulin. Our cells have lots of little locked gates around their walls (they are called GLUT4), and insulin is the key to these gates. Without insulin, the glucose cannot enter the cells. When we eat a meal too high in carbohydrates and/or refined sugars our blood glucose rises more than it would have if we had eaten a healthy balanced meal. The brain then signals the pancreas to tell it to release more insulin than normal as the brain’s top priority is to get glucose back down to safe levels and it wants to do it as quickly as possible. High glucose levels can cause damage to our blood vessels and this is why diabetics have issues with blood flow to their extremities. Insulin will open as many cell gates as it can allowing the glucose to enter and be processed by the little factories in the cells that produce energy. Any glucose excess is stored as fat. That is why keeping blood sugar balanced is vital if you want to lose weight. The problem doesn’t stop there. Excess glucose or hyperglycaemia, can often be followed by too low blood sugar or hypoglycaemia. This is caused by the excess insulin released doing too good a job of clearing glucose from the blood. This is why you may feel very tired, hungry and in dire need of a sugary snack 2-3 hours after a high carbohydrate meal like a sandwich or a pasta salad. Your blood sugar has spiked and now it is crashing. At this point, your body is signalling to the brain that glucose is needed and a few hormonal mechanisms go into effect to help bring it back up. If you start your day with a nice, commercial breakfast cereal loaded with refined sugar this can start you off on a glucose rollercoaster that can keep you sugar craving and alternating between hyperglycaemia and hypoglycaemia all day. You have turned yourself into a fat storing machine.
If you keep this pattern up for a few years, you can develop a condition called insulin resistance. This means that the body’s cells have become overwhelmed with the excess amounts of glucose and insulin coming at them on a regular basis and have become a bit numb to the action of insulin. This results in the locks changing on the little GLUT4 gates on the cells and insulin no longer is the key that fits the lock. The brain wonders why so much glucose is floating around so signals the pancreas to make even more insulin. This leads to hyperglycemia and hyperinsulinaemia (high blood insulin levels) with the inevitable hypoglycaemia a few hours later. The primary effect of this is even more fat storage and even more blood sugar spikes and dips leading to even more fatigue and sugar cravings. The cells themselves add to the drive for sweet foods as don’t forget the locks have changed on their glucose gates and they need glucose to produce energy. The poor little cells are going hungry. So what do they do – they signal the brain to tell it they need sugar, which further exacerbates your need for your usual 3pm pack of cookies! It’s a perpetual cycle and turns you into an even bigger fat storing machine.
Insulin resistance can really hamper the weight loss process in the first few months of a lifestyle change as the person fights the constant sugar cravings and the snail’s pace weight loss. My insulin resistant clients have to hunker down for a battle of wills between their brains and their hormones. They want so badly to lose weight but their brain is constantly telling them to go for sugary foods. Some of my clients go for 3 to 4 months with very little weight loss even on a daily exercise program and a kick ass weight loss diet. However, their patience is paid off when their cells start working better, insulin and glucose settle down and the weight starts falling off a few kilos a month. Yes – the good news is the whole situation can be reversed and we can turn you into a fat burning machine! It can be a tricky message for the weight loss client who wants it to come off as quickly as possible. It takes a fair bit of trust in me for a client to keep going even when they don’t see the weight loss they want. How many times have you quit a diet because it just isn’t working for you? It probably is working for you – you’re off the glucose/insulin rollercoaster, and your cells are becoming more insulin sensitive, but the whole process needs to heal and you need to give it time to get to where it needs to be for the fat to drop off. Patience will be rewarded with steady, sustained weight loss and maintenance of an ideal weight for life.
Menopausal weight gain can result from a culmination of years of bad habits. But it doesn’t have to be the be all and end all. You can do something about it. It may take some serious diet and lifestyle changes. When I am working with clients, I try to change one thing at a time – small steps towards a bigger picture. If you want to get off the glucose/insulin rollercoaster and turn yourself into a fat burning machine, contact me and take the first step towards the old you or even a more improved version!