Hormones are so important for so many different aspects of your health, so when they’re off, you really feel off. And unfortunately for many women, menopause leads to dramatic hormonal changes.
One of the most obvious and frustrating signs of menopausal hormone imbalance is an unexplained weight gain. Even worse, some hormonal imbalances can also affect your body composition, leaving you with more weight around your middle no matter how many ab workouts you do.
It can be a frustrating problem, but knowing how to check your hormone levels is the first step. Here’s everything you need to know about how hormonal weight gain can change the shape of your belly, and what you can do about it.
How Menopause Can Change Your Body Shape
It’s a sad truth that some of us know all too well, but weight gain is a fairly common symptom for many women as they approach menopause. Women who are approaching menopause often complain of unwanted weight gain, especially around their bellies.
Weight gain generally happens when you take in more calories than your body burns in a day. When it comes to menopause, this weight gain can happen for a couple of reasons.
- Your metabolism naturally tends to slow down as you grow older. Your metabolism determines how your body uses calories from your food for energy. One study estimated that your body burns about 150 calories less every decade as an adult, which can quickly add up when you reach your forties and fifties.
- Your physical activity level might decline. Many women start seeing some weight gain in their midlife because they aren’t as physically active as they used to be, which means your body burns fewer calories every day. It can also mean that your muscle mass is decreasing, and since muscle tissue uses more energy than fat tissue, this means that your metabolism slows down even further.
- Your hormones are imbalanced. As you approach menopause, your hormones start to fluctuate. Hormones do several jobs including managing your appetite and determining your metabolism, so imbalances can quickly have an effect on the scale.
And unfortunately, those hormones imbalances can also change the way your body stores fat, leading to more weight gained in your midsection.
For example, your reproductive hormone estrogen starts to decrease as you approach menopause. Because estrogen plays a role in how your body stores fat, you may see that this leads to more fat accumulation around your belly, even if nothing else in your diet and physical activity has changed.
Estrogen imbalance isn’t the only culprit, either: an imbalance of other hormones like cortisol and thyroid hormones can also lead to an unwanted redistribution of fat towards your middle.
What is a “normal” belly shape?
Gaining weight around your belly can be very frustrating and leave you feeling like you just want to get back to normal.
However, it’s important not to think of body types as “normal” or “not normal” because everyone has a slightly different body composition and stores fat differently. Instead, you want to ask yourself what healthy looks like for you.
The scientific term for belly fat is visceral fat. Under normal circumstances, visceral fat protects the organs in your abdomen, but it can also be dangerous in excess. So far beyond just the way you look in the mirror, having excess visceral fat can also put you at risk for other serious conditions like heart disease and diabetes.
According to WebMD, you can get an estimate of your visceral fat by measuring your waist. If your measurement is over 35 inches, this could be a sign of excess belly fat. However, this is a relatively crude method that does not necessarily give you an idea of your body composition as a whole, so take it with a grain of salt.
Hormone Tests For Weight Loss
Luckily even if you do have excess belly fat due to a hormonal imbalance, there are things you can do to gain control.
A balanced diet, vigorous exercise, and general self-care are all great ways to start burning fat. And to gain control of the hormones, which could be the root of your weight gain, you might also look into hormone tests.
Because there are so many different hormones that could be contributing to your weight gain, a hormone test can give you better insights into which, if any, of those hormone imbalances can be treated or improved.
Hormones that can be tested to see if they’re impacting your weight include:
Your thyroid is a gland that produces the hormones T3 and T4, both of which are important for powering your most crucial body functions including your metabolism. If your thyroid is underproducing those hormones, you may have hypothyroidism, which can cause your metabolism to slow down and lead to weight gain.
Common tests for thyroid hormones include tests for T3 and T4 in your system, as well as tests for thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH).
It’s a given that menopause means a decrease in estrogen levels. However, if your menopausal symptoms include things like weight gain, hot flashes, extreme mood swings, and other things that are affecting your life, you can get your estrogen levels checked out to find if there are any major causes for concern or any treatments that you can take.
There are two different kinds of estrogen blood tests your physician might recommend for menopausal symptoms: E1 (estrone) testing, which is the form of estrogen that women make after menopause, and E2 (estradiol), which is the main hormone nonpregnant women make.
Cortisol is more commonly known as your “stress hormone.” Under conditions of chronic stress - like work, relationships, and financial pressures - your cortisol levels can be elevated to the point where they cause a disruption to your metabolism and an increase in your belly fat.
You can get your cortisol tested via a blood or saliva sample, though blood tests are the most common.
Your insulin levels are crucial for managing your weight because they have a direct effect on how your body stores fat. It works by allowing free sugars from your diet to be stored in your cells - and if insulin levels are too low, that means more blood sugar is being stored as fat tissue. This is also why high levels of insulin are associated with conditions like Type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Insulin can be tested via a blood draw, where your physician can determine what needs to happen next.
Once you get your results and see which hormones in your panel are at irregular levels, you can then consult with your doctor, who can guide you through building a better plan to balance those hormones to lose weight.
Hormone imbalances might be a frustrating fact of life, especially during menopause, but knowing exactly which hormones are causing problems can help you combat many of the most frustrating symptoms like unwanted weight gain. If you have concerns that your increasing belly circumference is due to a hormonal imbalance, get tested!