If you’re over 40 and you’ve started to gain weight without making any major lifestyle changes, you may wonder what’s going on with your body. It can be frustrating when you haven't changed your diet or exercise routine, but extra pounds still find a way to creep in anyway.
Sudden weight gain during perimenopause, however, isn’t unusual. It’s been estimated that the average weight increase experienced during perimenopause and menopause is around two to five pounds.1 So, why does unexpected weight gain in menopause occur, and how can you keep it to a minimum?
How Hormones Affect Weight Gain
Weight gain in perimenopause is often tied to erratic, transitioning hormones. When perimenopause begins, estrogen levels start to fluctuate every day. This happens because the brain – the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland, in particular – are telling our ovaries to produce more estrogen; with some studies showing that these higher estrogen levels can contribute to weight gain.2
But it’s not just the additional weight that’s problematic; another issue is the way fat is distributed and stored during perimenopause. When we begin puberty—and throughout much of our lives—excess fat is stored in our hips and thighs. During menopause, however, fat deposits shift to the abdomen, causing our bodies to seemingly change shape. This redistribution can make it look as if you’ve gained extra weight, even if you haven’t.3
What Are Some Causes of Sudden Weight Gain in Perimenopause?
A number of factors may influence weight gain during perimenopause. Some issues occur independently, while others work together to contribute to additional weight gain, such as:
A hormone called ghrelin is found in higher quantities in perimenopausal women. Nicknamed “the hunger hormone,” ghrelin tells your brain that you are hungry, and if you eat more in response to this cue, your calorie intake will obviously increase.
Additionally, estrogen levels, which tend to drop in later stages of perimenopause, may affect the way leptin and neuropeptide Y work together in the body – leptin is a hormone that helps the body maintain consistent weight, while neuropeptide Y is a chain of amino acids that controls appetite and feelings of fullness. Women in this later stage of perimenopause may consume more calories because of the prevalence of these specific hormones.4
Loss of Muscle Mass
As we age, muscle mass naturally decreases and the rate at which our bodies burn calories, slows. These factors, plus additional calorie consumption, may result in weight gain during perimenopause. Also, adults tend to be less active as they age, which leads to a decline in muscle mass and—once again—added weight.5
It’s important to note that what you eat can also impact your muscle mass, so, ensuring you have a diet rich in protein is important for maintaining the muscle mass you have and supporting the growth of new muscle during perimenopause and beyond.
Lack of Sleep
About half of all women in menopause are affected by sleep disturbances, like difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or tossing and turning throughout the night because of night sweats. Leilah Grant, Ph.D., of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, has researched sleep disruption in menopause and can confirm that poor quality sleep may be a key factor for weight gain. “Sleep disturbances decrease fat utilization,” she cautions. “[Which] may increase the likelihood of fat storage and subsequent weight gain during menopause.” Dr. Grant also believes that by improving sleep in perimenopause and menopause, women may be able to stave off some weight gain.6
Under Active Thyroid
The thyroid is a gland that helps regulate our metabolism, or the rate at which our bodies burn calories. Women with an under active thyroid may experience a slower metabolism, meaning the calories they consume are stored in the body instead of converted into usable energy. This condition, called hypothyroidism, may lead to excess weight gain. The good news is that medications are available to regulate these hormone levels, so be sure so check in with your healthcare provider if thyroid issues are a concern.7
Genetics, medications whose side effects include weight gain, and high stress levels may all also cause sudden weight increases in perimenopause. If you have concerns about your weight at any time, consider speaking with your healthcare provider for advice.8
Our bodies store two types of fat: subcutaneous and visceral. Subcutaneous fat lies under the skin; you can see and feel it – squeeze your midsection or jiggle your upper arm and you’ll know what we’re talking about.
Visceral fat, however, is not visible, as it’s deposited in the abdominal cavity around the intestines, pancreas, and liver. Visceral fat tends to settle around these organs during menopause and is associated with some health risks. A high amount of visceral fat (more than 10%) may cause insulin resistance, which can lead to glucose intolerance and type 2 diabetes. Other health issues that may occur from excess visceral fat deposits include heart disease, cancer (breast and colorectal), and Alzheimer’s disease.9
How Can I Prevent Weight Gain in Perimenopause?
Strategies to prevent sudden weight gain in perimenopause are similar to keeping your weight in check at any age. Some tips include:
- Increasing your physical activity. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week.10 Strength training exercises should also be incorporated to help build bone and muscle strength as well as to help support your metabolism.11
- Watching your caloric intake. You will need about 200 fewer calories each day as you enter your 50s. A sedentary woman should consume about 1,600 calories a day, while an active woman may need around 1,800.12
- Moving your body more, sitting less. Walking, biking, light weight training, and running are excellent ways to burn calories and stave off perimenopause weight gain.13
When to Discuss Sudden Weight Gain with Your Healthcare Provider
It’s a good idea to speak with your healthcare provider before making any changes to your diet or starting a new exercise program. And, any type of rapid weight gain should be addressed with your provider as well, just to rule out more serious issues.14
Sudden weight gain in perimenopause and menopause can be a confusing and frustrating experience, but through an awareness of changes in your body, eating healthy foods, and adopting an exercise program, maintaining a healthy weight in menopause is absolutely possible.