What’s with this menopause tummy?

First of all lets be clear that this isn’t a menopause symptom for every woman but for many it can be, leaving some very confused as to why.

I’ve heard it all too frequently, “I don’t understand, I’m doing what I’ve always done and the weight around my middle is spreading, what’s going on?” Throughout our lives our bodies change and I want to clarify that it is completely normal and perfectly ok. However, the symptoms of peri menopause and menopause, which can begin as early as our late 30s or early 40s mark a significant time of change for all women. As much as we may not want to think of it in our 20s, the fact is how you treat your body in your 20s and 30s could have a significant effect on determining how you experience the menopause. The menopause can last as long as 10 years so it stands to reason if you’ve looked after your body reasonably well you could be in a better position when it does creep up.

There has been so much more awareness drawn to the menopause and its symptoms more recently. Women are overcoming their fear of HRT, mainly due to the work of Dr Louise Newson, who has made it her mission to dispel the fear and taboo around the subject. Women are becoming much more open to discussing their experiences and symptoms. This in itself can be a powerful tool to help women understand that they don’t have to suffer in silence and there is help available.

Abdominal weight gain is one of the really annoying symptoms of the menopause but why?

Of course everything about the menopause is about hormonal changes and weight gain is no different. During the menopause we experience a fall in oestrogen levels. This reduction alters how weight is distributed and stored in the body. We see a greater fat distribution around the abdomen as we age. The problem with this type of weight gain is it comes with an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Add to this the joint aches, tiredness and low mood women experience and we see a recipe for reduced exercise and increased consumption of sugary foods, in an attempt to boost energy or just for comfort.

We can’t just blame our hormones for the weight gain though, lifestyle, genetics and ageing all play a part. As we age from around 40 our muscles start to lose strength and mass (this is called sarcopenia). As I said earlier, how you treat your body in your 20s/30s will have a effect. Start resistance training early, if you establish a good level of muscle mass and strength, you’ll be in a better place as your peak starts to decline. And for goodness sake, keep training. Symptoms like poor sleep and fatigue can make it difficult but do what you can when you can to try and retain as much strength and mass as you can. Muscle mass is what’s called metabolically active tissue, meaning it uses up more calories than fat does to maintain itself. Stands to reason then, the more metabolically active tissue you have the less likely you are to succumb to the abdominal spread. Resistance training also has a positive effect on mood and mental health which can help tackle menopause mood symptoms. Unfortunately excessive weight does have a bearing of the severity of menopause symptoms, with one study showing obese women experienced more severe hot flushes, joint and muscle pain and more intense urinary symptoms.

Here is my checklist for making it through the menopause and maybe even seeing it as a positive experience.

  • Start early, establishing some healthy habits in your 20s will really help. And don’t think this doesn’t apply to you, I promise it does.
  • Exercise – Yes going for a run is good for cardiovascular and mental health but it won’t built proof you from menopause symptoms. And don’t think that you just need to run more, you don’t. Add some weighted exercise to your routine, build some muscle mass (metabolically active tissue) and you’ll be in a better position when menopause comes a long.
  • Move daily – as we age what can happen without us noticing, is we start to move less. This is what they mean when they say ‘metabolism is reduced’. This can be especially true for women experiencing menopause symptoms like, fatigue, joint pain and muscle aches. I mean really who wants to take the stairs when your knees are hurting? BUT, daily movement is so important. This isn’t exercise, I’m not talking going to the gym. This is, I’m going for a walk, I’m going to get up from my desk regularly, I’m going to take the stairs. Believe it or not the more you move the less you will ache. Ever heard the phrase ‘motion is lotion’? Movement can really help keep joints lubricated, preventing stiffness. So a lap of the block after lunch or dinner is a great idea.
  • Nutrition – You guessed it, a healthy well balanced diet. No severe calorie restrictions, which is a trap that some women fall into as weight around the middle starts to happen. The ‘run more and eat 1200 calories’ doesn’t work. If anything it will make your symptoms worse. Please don’t get terrified of food, nourishing your body through this change is so important. Start with protein and a good variety of plant foods, make sure you are including fibre and healthy fats. You can read about some good sources of these here protein, fibre, fats. I know its controversial but give serious consideration to eliminating or drastically reducing alcohol. It has many detrimental effects for women, especially as we age.
  • Sleep – easier said than done, I know but set yourself up for the best possibility of a good nights sleep. Have a wind down period with no tech, make sure the room is dark with no flashing or bright clocks or devises and above all keep the room cool, use light bedding. Once you are too hot there isn’t much chance of sleep. And if you do wake up in the night it can help to get up, make a herbal tea, maybe let your temperature come back down then head back to bed to try again. We’ve all been there where we are tossing and turning and getting frustrated, don’t do it to yourself.
  • Magnesium citrate – the most absorbable form of magnesium can help muscles relax so could improve sleep, headaches, soothe joint aches and lower stress levels.
  • HRT – Do some research so that when you speak to your GP you are well informed about your needs and rights. I would highly recommend Dr Newson’s book ‘Menopause‘ which give all the practical advice you need to head to your doctor with.

Remember start creating good habits early and do not suffer in silence. The menopause happens to over 50% of the population so talk about it and get the help and advise that you need.

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