It’s barely an hour past lunch, and you’re hungry. Again. These days it feels like you could eat everything in your refrigerator at one go without even coming up for air.
What is going on? Why do you suddenly have the appetite of a high school track star?
First of all, there’s nothing wrong with eating. No one should feel ashamed or embarrassed about their appetite.
But if you’re concerned your appetite, nutrition and hormones may be impacting your health, it may be useful to understand why appetite can ramp up in menopause – and how you can stay within healthy limits.
What hormones makes you hungry?
There are a few possibilities to consider, but note that the jury is still out on exactly how hormones, menopause, and appetite interact. So, as always, talk with your doc before making assumptions about your own situation.
- Increased ghrelin, decreased leptin. In perimenopause, levels of the hunger-stimulating hormone ghrelin increase, a reason why many women find themselves frequently hungry during this phase. Levels of the hormone leptin, which promotes a sense of fullness, reduce throughout peri- and postmenopause.”
- Increased cortisol. Persistent stress causes a lot of people to overeat – and often, to make some fairly poor choices of foods (high-fat, high-sugar “comfort” foods). So in perimenopause and menopause, when the cortisol-dampening effects of estrogen are diminished, stress-fueled appetite can increase.
- Decreased estrogen. Like leptin, estrogen serves to dampen appetite. One form of estrogen, estradiol, helps regulate metabolism and body weight. As estrogen declines in perimenopause and menopause, appetite ramps up.
- Poor sleep. During perimenopause and menopause, hormone weirdness can impact your sleep ( perimenopause night sweats, for example). Insufficient sleep can further elevate sensations of hunger.
So, since hormonal changes in midlife are inevitable – if they haven’t happened sooner – are we stuck struggling to manage our appetite and weight?
Before we get to the advice portion, there’s something we want to point out: Many of the articles we found dealing with menopause and appetite are about losing weight. We want to emphasize that we believe achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is the goal. So, we say to societal standards based on unrealistic (and frankly misogynistic) ideas about the female form, there’s the door.
Maintaining a healthy weight in menopause
When it comes to weight, it's a jungle out there. Lots of folks want you to believe they have the answer, so be sure to do your research and talk to your doc before making radical changes or introducing new supplements or "diet aids" to your daily routine.
As our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Rebecca, says, "Research into all of these hormones and neurotransmitters (some function as both) is still at the basic and translation science stage. We don’t know what it means clinically, so while it may be nice to understand to an extent how they may impact menopause and the experience of menopause, no practitioner can alter or 'treat' these things. If someone is selling you something to do that, they are selling snake oil – the science is, unfortunately, still years away. The only take away is to reduce your stress as best you can (which you didn’t need the science to tell you!)"
Whatever the role hormones have to play in appetite, one thing that’s quite common is the difficulty of losing weight once gained in menopause.
That may be because of our slowed metabolism, it may be due to menopausal fatigue, stress, the effects of night sweats and restless leg syndrome (RLS) on our ability to get a decent night’s sleep.
All of which is to say: Be aware that maintaining a healthy weight in midlife may require different strategies and be patient with yourself.
Controlling menopause and food cravings
- Eat more fiber. Since women in midlife frequently experience constipation, this isn’t a bad idea anyway. And since fiber can make you feel fuller longer, it may help curb your appetite.
- Eat enough protein. Our protein needs may be less than in previous years, but it’s still important to get enough. Protein helps us feel satisfied, which obviously dampens our enthusiasm for snacking.
- Load up on veggies. Low-calorie, high-fiber, nutrient-dense veggies are ideal for those looking to maintain a healthy weight. They’ll fill you up for a lot fewer calories, and the fiber may benefit your gut biome, further helping with weight management.
- As Gloria A. Richard-Davis, MD, FACOG, NCMP wrote for the North American Menopause Society, “learn to cope without food.” A lot of us turn to the reliable pleasure and comfort of food under stress, but taking a break to walk the dog or indulge in some non-edible self-care may be a far better option.
- Move more. Exercise alone doesn’t do a lot for weight loss, if that’s your goal, but its benefits for heart, lungs, brain, and mood are inarguable. Keeping and building muscle after 40 is essential. Mix it up with cardio and strength training to get the biggest boost, and don’t ignore the benefits and feel-good qualities of really good stretching. Exercise can increase appetite, of course; just make sure you refuel with the right foods.
- Maximize your chances of getting a good night’s sleep by practicing good sleep hygiene. Some women take CBD or sleep better by eating a small snackor before bed.
- Drink water. Althought being hydrated can make you pee more often, water is good for you, good for your brain, good for your body. And it can help you feel full. Humans often mistake thirst for hunger. Tired, lightheaded, unable to focus – sounds like you need food, right? Well, it’s also possible that a glass of water is what your body is actually asking for.
- Allow yourself the pleasure of food. Here's what Dr. Anna Garrett says about “Vitamin P,” when we take the time to slow down and take pleasure in our food, we may be more in tune with the satiety signals that tell us it’s time to stop eating.
Clearly weight management is more complicated than “calories in, calories out.” Hormones, the stresses of life, and the unique challenges of midlife can all add layers of complication to the way we eat and the way we feel.
But it’s important to understand that weight gain isn’t personal failure. Your body is extraordinarily complex and amazing; it can also be frustratingly unpredictable. Give yourself room to experiment and learn, and don’t forget to include your doctor in major lifestyle changes.
What are your challenges in maintaining a healthy weight, and what’s worked (or hasn’t)? Please share with us by commenting here, or joining the conversation in our community forums. You can also reach out to us on Gennev’s public Facebook page or in our closed Facebook group.