There is nothing more frustrating than suddenly putting on more weight around the middle even when you’re exercising, and nothing has changed in your diet! This sudden unexplained weight gain is often caused by our hormones, especially at peri-menopause which is why this life stage and these symptoms are often so intertwined.
Weight around the middle is a sign of high cortisol levels and high blood sugar. Remember the body hasn’t changed in 60,000 years so being stressed over spreadsheets, sat at your desk with a coffee creates the same physiological response as needing to run away or fight a wild animal. The body thinks imminent danger is afoot! Cortisol is raised which increases blood sugar conversion from the liver into the blood stream as the body thinks it needs to run away from a wild animal or fight it. After this event is over (no longer stressed over the spreadsheets) it thinks it will be clever and convert the sugar back into fat and place it round the middle near to the liver for when the next stressful event occurs (next work presentation document to be written). Unfortunately, after every stressful event, the body thinks it needs to refuel as this fight or flight response would usually result in energy usage – cue the strong cravings for sugar and caffeine. This is where the catch-22 occurs – caffeine and sugar create more fat and more cortisol release which then makes us crave them even more!
Around the menopause it’s often a stressful time as we deal with changes in how we look in the mirror, changes in energy levels and those other symptoms of menopause like hot flushes, as well as feeling anxious about the next stage of our life. It’s interesting to note that the way the menopause is viewed in Asia is hugely different from our Western perception. It’s seen as a hugely positive time – the start of the wise stage of our lives, women are revered.
Sorting out our blood sugar is crucial for reducing ‘internal stress’. Cortisol raises blood sugar ready for fight or flight. This then stimulates the release of insulin if this isn’t used to get sugar out of the blood and converted back into fat, which is what creates these cravings. The brain can only use glucose as a source of fuel, so it needs to be kept within a tight range, hence why cortisol is called in to help should levels fall below this tight control. Central fat cells also have 4 times the amount of cortisol receptors on them so if you’re stressed then these fat cells are calling out for you to store more fat here ready for the next stressful event. This is why reducing sugar and caffeine as well as alcohol (liquid sugar!) all help normalise our blood sugar.
Reducing calories isn’t going to help. Not all calories are made equal and unfortunately the diet industry often leaves us feeling deprived and guilty because reducing calories doesn’t get rid of cravings and doesn’t help shift this central fat. Add more lean protein to your diet which helps give the body a drip feed of energy to reduce these highs and lows of blood sugar which also help reduce cortisol release. More protein also helps reduce cravings and essential fats from oily fish, linseed oil, avocado and nuts (not usually seen as diet food!) help to balance our hormones and also give us sustenance to again help curb these cravings. More plants – around 30 a week – help to boost our gut health which is important for giving the brain signals that it is full, or should I say satisfied. Vegetables are also high in vitamins and minerals which are the ‘spark plugs’ of the body – essential for our metabolic controller, the thyroid. They also boost our Vit C and B vits which help our energy production. Vit C is also essential for our adrenal health – small glands that sit above the kidneys which produce oestrogen after our ovaries have stopped and are also in charge of releasing cortisol.
Unfortunately, this central weight interferes with our hormones as it starts to produce its own oestrogen and inflammatory markers. Fat on the hips and thighs is inert – i.e. it doesn’t do anything aside from store fat. This is why getting rid of this visceral, central, fat has added health benefits. These central fat cells start to produce inflammatory cytokines which basically give the immune system more work to do. Cortisol is also our natural anti-inflammatory hormone, so this has the effect of stimulating the adrenals to make more cortisol. Anti-inflammatory foods such as oily fish which are rich in omega 3, linseed oil, nuts and seeds are all helpful here as well as brightly coloured fruits and vegetables which contain lots of antioxidants which helps calm our immune system.
So, diet can fix what is going on inside the body stress wise, but it can’t fix external stress (sadly!). Aside from blood sugar control, food can help us become more resilient to how we deal with stress. Adapting to stress can be very beneficial to us. That’s why adaptogens such as maca (found in our Energy Elixir) as well as turmeric and herbs like ashwagandha can be helpful here.
These interventions will help us feel less tired, less irritable and this central weight will start to reduce increasing our feelings of vitality and making us want to exercise more!
Karen Newby, BSc Nutritional Medicine, mBANT, CNHC. Karen is a registered nutritionist who specialises in women’s and children’s health. Her clinic is based at The Dolphin Clinic in Brighton. She is very much a realist as she also struggles to keep ‘hurried women’s syndrome in check but her philosophy is if 80% is good then 20% can be not so good! She’s also a believer in the power of food (and lots of plants) to bring about health change.