Menopause—as well as perimenopause, the years before your period actually stops—can be a very challenging time for lots of women. There are hot flashes and mood swings, insomnia and ravenous hunger. That insatiable appetite winds up being a major hurdle for women in midlife as it often coincides with weight gain that’s hard to control and even harder to lose. In order to make informed decisions around food during this already stressful and complicated time, it’s vitally important to understand what exactly is sparking your new, seemingly uncontrollable appetite.
Fluctuating Hunger Hormones and Appetite
When you consider the culprits behind hormonal fluctuations and other menopausal symptoms, you’re likely thinking of the sex hormones estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. However, they’re only a piece of the hormonal puzzle. Menopause also impacts the hunger hormones ghrelin and leptin as well as cortisol and insulin. Combined, fluctuations in these hormones can make your appetite go haywire.
Hunger hormones ghrelin and leptin are responsible for telling the brain when we are hungry and when we are full. Ghrelin originates from the stomach and travels through your bloodstream to your brain to tell you that your stomach is empty and that you need to eat, leading us to feel hungry. Leptin, on the other hand, tells us when we’re full. Leptin originates from fat cells and it tells your brain when you’re satiated. Unfortunately, research shows that menopause (as well as pre- and post-menopause) can impact these hormones by increasing ghrelin production while simultaneously decreasing leptin. Of course that is going to be a recipe for ravenous hunger!
How Stress and Blood Sugar Impact Appetite
In addition to off-kilter hunger hormones, your appetite is also impacted by fluctuating levels of the stress hormone cortisol and insulin, which regulates blood sugar. By the time we reach midlife, we have generally accumulated a lot of stress and have at least some pre-existing cortisol dysfunction—not to mention that menopause tends to coincide with other stressful life changes, such as caring for elderly parents and/or children leaving the nest. When our insulin and cortisol levels are out of whack, our brain tells us to seek out simple carbohydrates for a quick blood sugar fix. Unfortunately, that is only a short-term solution; simple sugary carbohydrates lead to blood sugar spikes which keep insulin and cortisol dysfunctional and lead to an endless cycle of low and high blood sugar levels. Blood sugar spikes put you on a rollercoaster of “hanger”, low energy, weakness, and the shakes mere hours after eating a meal, perpetuating a vicious cycle.
Getting Off the Hormonal Roller Coaster
While fluctuating hormones are simply part of the menopausal process, there are ways you can help yourself and mitigate their effects, especially when it comes to appetite, blood sugar control, and midlife weight gain. Here are ten ways to help you balance your hunger hormones naturally:
1. Swap sugary snacks for satiating ones. To combat the blood sugar roller coaster, limit the amount of sugary and refined carbohydrates you keep in the house and trade them for more filling snacks like nuts, berries, avocados, and nut butters.
2. Increase your protein and fiber intake. Part of curbing an increased appetite, as well as an uptick in sugary cravings, is by making sure you get enough protein and fiber at your meals. Increased fiber intake will not only help you feel fuller longer, but will help keep you regular. Studies also show that aiming for at least 20 grams of protein at every meal (for example a cup of Greek yogurt, four ounces of chicken breast, or 3 whole eggs or a cup of egg whites), helps suppress ghrelin and helps control weight. Get more fiber in your diet by swapping simple carbohydrates for whole grains, juices for whole fruits and veggies, and adding chia or flax seeds to a smoothie.
3. Eat balanced meals and snacks at regular intervals This means eating protein with complex carbohydrates and healthy fats at every main meal, and making sure you pair complex carbohydrates/fiber with a healthy fat and/or protein with snacks like apple slices and almond butter, veggies and hummus, or Greek yogurt and berries. In order to keep your blood sugar balanced, aim to eat every four hours and avoid fasting during the day.
4. Up your veggie intake. Not only will they provide you with much needed nutrients, they are a low-calorie, high-volume addition to your plate. They’re also a great way to increase the amount of fiber in your diet which will help you stay fuller for longer.
5. Move more and adapt your fitness routine. If fitness isn’t already part of your routine, now is the time make it a priority. Exercise you enjoy not only helps you maintain a healthy weight, but it helps reduce stress and cortisol levels. Exercise should include at least two cardio sessions and two strength/resistance training sessions per week. We lose muscle as we age, thereby lowering our resting metabolic rate. By focusing on building and maintaining muscle we not only stabilize our blood sugar and insulin levels, but we burn more calories at rest. Strength training also helps slow age-related bone loss and prevents osteoporosis.
6. Stay hydrated. Our bodies are roughly 60 percent water, and staying hydrated helps our organs and tissues run smoothly. It can also help you feel full, so if you’re having trouble concentrating, feeling lethargic, or have a headache, start with a glass of water first. You’ll likely prevent yourself from overeating as well (research shows you’ll eat an average of 75 fewer calories at each meal). Water also increases your metabolism, eases bloating, and can help with menopausal dryness caused by a drop in estrogen levels.
7. Practice mindful eating. Stop working, put away your phone, and turn off the TV whenever you eat. Not only does distracted eating lead to overeating, but you miss out on the pleasure of the meal before you—and pleasure is an important component of feeling satisfied. Ease any digestive troubles by eating slowly and chewing completely before swallowing. Finally, consider eating after a workout instead of before. Exercising immediately after a meal can cause digestive problems, including gas and bloating, as well as not getting the most nutrients from your food.
8. Learn how to relax and destress. While de-stressing is often easier said than done, it is important not just for your mental health, but for your physical health as well. Learn how to meditate, begin journaling, practice yoga, or try breathing exercises that stimulate the vagus nerve. These strategies will all help you cope with the stress of menopause as well as lower your cortisol levels over time, leading to more stable blood sugar and hormone levels.
9. Supplement wisely. Supplementing your diet with the right high-quality vitamins and minerals is also an important strategy in the fight against haywire hormones. Cinnamon, ginseng, chromium, and omega-3 fatty acids are just a few proven examples of blood sugar stabilizers. Magnesium, milk thistle, and raspberry leaf supplements are also great for helping to balance hormones.
10. Get a good night’s sleep. There’s a reason why a good night’s sleep is always an integral part of eating healthy: a bad night’s sleep can really wreak havoc on your hunger hormones. In addition to increasing cravings for unhealthy foods, a poor night’s rest leads to an increase in stress, which leads to even more hormonal imbalances—aka, a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle.
Navigating the world of nutrition while dealing with menopause can be complicated, But together we can build a plan that addresses your needs and concerns and that will leave you feeling balanced and in control. I'm here to help. Click here to contact me.