Severe mood swings. Irregular menstrual cycles. Hot flashes. These are just a few of the typical symptoms associated with both menopause and perimenopause. These are symptoms I’ve watched friends and relatives experience and seen exaggerated in film and on TV over the years. Menopause is one of the major hormonal shifts women experience in life, and the experience of it is often shrouded in either jokes or silence.
Even if you have years before you begin perimenopause (worth noting: it can begin as early as your late twenties), it’s never too early to learn more about what to expect during this hormonal shift. Nor is it too early to discover some things that might make that transition easier when it’s time.
What’s perimenopause, anyway?
Menopause doesn’t just happen overnight. If you have menopausal symptoms, but still experience menses, you aren’t technically in menopause yet. You’re probably in what is known as perimenopause, the transitional phase. Perimenopause begins when your body starts producing less estrogen and lasts until you no longer get your period. The hormonal fluctuations that bring about this change magnify the symptoms we commonly associate with periods and premenstrual syndrome, as well as add new ones into the mix.
Let’s talk perimenopausal weight gain
Of the many symptoms or side effects that happen when women transition to menopause, one of the most prevalent is a decrease in resting metabolic rate, which almost always precedes weight gain. Perimenopausal weight gain is widely prevalent and there are so many articles focused on why it happens, how to avoid it, and how to reverse it. The majority of these articles have a rather negative perspective on the normal, natural fluctuations of women’s weight during perimenopause.
Are we seriously talking about getting women to lose weight? Again?
The numerous articles encouraging women to drop weight whether they gained any during perimenopause or not left me with a thought: is this yet another situation where society uses a natural process in women’s bodies against us to get women to conform to societal beauty norms? And my research tells me that the answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no.
Some of the articles I read definitely skewed towards losing weight to fit a beauty standard, even while your body is changing. But it turns out there are studies, as well as anecdotal evidence, that shows there may be a direct link between losing weight during perimenopause and the reduction in the severity of your menopausal symptoms. The loss of fatty tissue, specifically, has seen the strongest reduction in symptoms. This is likely due to the way fatty tissue stores additional estrogen, which has been linked to exacerbated hot flashes.
It is important to remember, especially when we are discussing the benefits of dropping body fat or weight loss to improve our health, that there are many elements that contribute to menopausal symptoms. Gaining weight is a normal, natural thing human bodies do when they are adjusting to new proportions of hormones. It’s important to be kind to yourself and to try to maintain a positive relationship with your body as it goes through menopause. Many symptoms of menopause are directly related to the biological changes happening in your body, which can leave you feeling helpless and out of control. But there are some changes that you can influence or alleviate, including increased anxiety, altered sleep patterns, emotional eating, and the amount of stress in your day-to-day life.
How we fuel our bodies can impact menopausal symptoms, too
A friend of mine, Misty, recently shared her experience with menopause, specifically the intensity of her symptoms and how changing the way she ate made a significant difference. The onset of perimenopause came with weight gain, irritability, hot flashes, and brain fog. She experienced discontentment towards her new, heavier body, and the brain fog impacted her daily life. This led her to consult with her gynecologist about her symptoms, where she was assured that weight gain was common with the onset of menopause and nothing to be concerned about.
Her gynecologist’s approach to reducing and managing her perimenopausal symptoms was a recommendation to shift from three larger meals a day to six or seven smaller meals. She recommended this shift as a way to work with a changing metabolism by decreasing the blood sugar spikes associated with even the healthiest of large meals. In the first two weeks of following her doctor’s recommendation, Misty experienced a reduction in frequency and intensity of her hot flashes and irritability, but most significantly her mental fog dispersed.
“When I spaced out my meals and ate something every few hours, my symptoms were more in check and manageable. The biggest reward was definitely being able to think clearly.” The way we fuel our bodies isn’t just a concern for weight loss or muscle building, it can directly influence our biological processes.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to reducing the impact of menopausal symptoms, but there is strong evidence that losing body fat and rethinking the way we eat can have dramatic, positive effects. As in many other situations where women deal with bodily changes, having a strong relationship with your body can ease the emotionally influenced symptoms. Finding a way to still feel at home in your body while it is changing in fundamental ways is key to feeling confident, in control, and in a strong place to advocate for what you need.