I didn’t gain weight when I went into menopause, but now, three years later, I have gained 14 pounds—even though my diet and exercise haven’t changed. What might be making me gain weight now?
Your weight gain might be due to a change in the way your body responds to the hormone cortisol. Cortisol has a significant and direct impact on metabolism.
During perimenopause and menopause—the late 40s and early 50s for most women—not only do levels of estrogen, progesterone, growth hormone and testosterone start to drop, but the level of the stress hormone cortisol rises.
And cortisol has a surprisingly direct effect on your metabolism. Elevated cortisol boosts your body’s insulin response (how much insulin your body pumps out) when you eat carbohydrate-rich grains, starchy vegetables, fruits, sweets and alcohol. That increase in insulin shifts how we metabolize food so that more calories are stored as fat—especially around the abdomen.
Cortisol also affects appetite. It influences how our bodies handle adiponectin and leptin, the two main hormones that regulate food cravings and satiety (the sense of having eaten enough). Cortisol contributes to leptin resistance, for instance, so the amount of leptin your body produces has less of an effect. That leads to an increased desire to consume more food. So even though you’re not aware of it, you may be feeling more cravings and eating more.
Sure, you can—and should—counter this effect by upping your commitment to eating right and exercising. But you’ll also want to tackle the cortisol connection.
THE CORTISOL BREAKDOWN
After menopause, women are more susceptible to stress than at any other time in their lives. Here’s why: They secrete a greater amount of cortisol for each stressor than when they were younger.
The irony here is that many women have less stress in their lives at this age…for example, many have fewer financial worries and are no longer taking care of their now-grown children. But their bodies have become more sensitive to stress, whether it comes from smaller hassles such as traffic, moderate issues such as loss of sleep or major traumas such as an illness or a death in the family. The adrenal glands (which produce cortisol) start to lose proper communication with the hypothalamus (the part of the brain that controls the production of cortisol) to a point where the body begins to produce cortisol all day long independent of the presence of a stressor.
Without changing the way our bodies handle cortisol—its production and the feedback loop with the hypothalamus—weight loss is extremely difficult.
CHANGING THE FEEDBACK LOOP
The goal isn’t simply to produce less cortisol but also to re-establish normal control of the adrenal glands by the brain so that cortisol (and other stress-related hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline) are produced when they are needed and not produced when they are not needed.
Good news—you don’t have to take drugs or do anything extreme to accomplish this. Mind-body practices including yoga, meditation and tai chi—even for just a few minute a day—can help restore the normal feedback loop and make it easier to lose weight, especially around your middle. Indeed, women who practice yoga regularly are less susceptible to post-menopausal weight gain. Deep breathing and meditation work very well, too. So does any exercise that you enjoy—walking, dancing and running all reduce cortisol levels. But if you don’t enjoy the kind of exercise you do, and are doing it only because you think you should, that could create stress and backfire, increasing cortisol.
Diet matters, too. Balancing your blood sugar by consuming adequate protein and little sugar will help moderate cortisol levels.
THE SUPPLEMENT APPROACH
Supplements can help. There are several products that reduce cortisol production such as magnolia bark extract, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and the Ayurvedic herb ashwaghanda. One compound that I have found to be very effective is an amino-acid sequence isolated from dairy milk (casein decapeptide) that helps reduce the chronic secretion of cortisol and has antianxiety and sleep-promoting properties. Another helpful supplement is theanine—a green tea extract that can take one out of beta wave brain activity (the kind accompanying racing thoughts) into alpha wave activity (the kind accompanying calming thoughts). For my patients, I often prescribe a supplement called Sereniten Plus that I developed for Douglas Laboratories—it contains both casein decapeptide and theanine. In my experience, it’s effective at resetting stress-hormone production. (Check with your doctor before taking any of these supplements, however—especially if you are taking antidepressants or antianxiety medications.)
If your body has been in cortisol overdrive, besides gaining weight, you might be experiencing a number of cortisol-related conditions that call for the care of a health-care practitioner—these may include high blood pressure, skin ailments, diabetes and/or irritable bowel syndrome.
One final thought: We often get so consumed with “doing” things to treat ourselves that we forget about the simple things like laughter and learning to say “no.” Those can be some of the most powerful stress management tools.