If you’re a woman aged over 40 and you answered ‘yes’ to the above question, you’re not alone. Many middle-aged women notice their energy levels drop and their appetites suddenly go through the roof along with their weight. And, you may be surprised to hear that menopause could be the culprit.
We’ve pulled together this article to help you understand the link between menopause and hunger, and what you can do to maintain a healthy weight.
What is menopause?
Menopause is the time in a woman’s life when her periods stop, thanks to declining levels of hormones like estrogen and progesterone. It usually happens in women aged between 50 and 55, and perimenopause – the lead-up to menopause when symptoms start appearing in a woman's mid to late forties.
What are the symptoms of menopause?
Menopause comes with a long list of symptoms. Some are physical, like hot flashes, headaches, bloating, tiredness, itching, and joint pain. Others are psychological, for example, anxiety, forgetfulness, mood swings, and brain fog. Hunger and a change in appetite is another symptom that often goes overlooked.
Hormones and hunger
Hormones play a huge part in our overall health and well-being, so as we get older and levels start to drop, it’s common to experience symptoms. Let’s take a look at some of the key hormones that influence our appetite and what this means for women as they reach menopause.
Estrogen ( Oestrogen)
Most of us know estrogen as the hormone that regulates the menstrual cycle, but it actually has a huge number of benefits to the rest of the body, too. In fact, estrogen helps keep the cardiovascular system in good shape, keeps the skin healthy, and protects the brain by maintaining proper blood flow.
Another benefit of estrogen is that it controls your appetite, keeping it at a normal level. When estrogen levels are high, you’ll feel fuller sooner. However, as menopause approaches and levels start to drop, you’ll likely notice your appetite getting bigger, which means you’ll need to eat more before you feel satisfied.
Leptin is a hormone that’s produced by our fat cells. Its job is to maintain a good balance between food intake and energy use. In simple terms, leptin tells our brain when we have enough fat cells, which makes us feel less hungry, preventing us from overeating.
In menopause, leptin levels fall, which means the hormone is less effective in suppressing your appetite. This makes you more likely to overeat and subsequently gain weight.
You might have heard ghrelin being called the hunger hormone. That’s because its job is to stimulate hunger, to ensure we eat enough to keep our energy levels up.
The reason many women feel so hungry in perimenopause and menopause is that ghrelin levels actually increase, leading to more intense feelings of hunger than ever before.
Cortisol is nicknamed the stress hormone – it’s effectively the body’s built-in alarm system, and its job is to instigate a ‘fight or flight’ response when we perceive danger. As we perceive stress, cortisol is released into the bloodstream, causing an increase in blood pressure and heart rate. It also increases our appetite.
Cortisol levels increase as women approach menopause, which means it’s common to feel hungry all the time. Elevated cortisol levels can actually cause you to crave fatty, salty, and sugary foods, too, which means it can be tricky to resist those unhealthy snacks.
Progesterone and testosterone
Not every hormonal change in menopause leads women to feel hungrier. In fact, falling progesterone and testosterone levels can actually make us feel less hungry, as these hormones are appetite stimulators. So, while most women notice they’re hungrier as they approach menopause, others may lose their appetite at times as hormone levels fluctuate.
How to control menopause hunger
Thankfully, there are ways to control the intense hunger menopause brings. Here’s what you can do to help.
Eat more fibre
Fibre is the part of the food we eat that can’t be absorbed into our body, which means it travels through our digestive system and into our gut relatively intact. Here, it can act as fuel to the healthy microbes that live in our gut, which spells great news for our overall health.
Another benefit of fibre is that it helps us feel fuller for longer. That, in turn, keeps cravings at bay and prevents us from consuming too many calories. Fibre-rich foods include whole grains, beans, lentils, fruit, and vegetables. By making simple swaps, like choosing brown rice instead of white, you can easily add more fibre to your diet and keep menopause cravings at bay.
As we mentioned earlier, the stress hormone cortisol increases our appetite, making us feel more hungry more often. Avoiding stress is easier said than done, but there are a lot of things you can do to help you feel calmer and more relaxed. Some people find things like yoga, pilates or meditation helpful. Others prefer to take some time out each day to read a book, go for a walk or sit down with a cup of tea.
Get plenty of rest
Tiredness is a common menopause symptom that’s once again caused by decreasing hormone levels and difficulty sleeping due to other symptoms like hot flashes. When we feel tired, we often reach for convenient options like fast food and ready meals because we don’t have the energy to cook healthy meals. So, if you can get on top of your sleeping pattern, you’ll find it easier to stay in control of your diet, too.
The bottom line
Fluctuating hormone levels in menopause can cause many women to feel extremely hungry a lot of the time. Thankfully, there are ways to bring your appetite back down to normal levels – like avoiding stress and getting more sleep and Increasing your fibre intake will help keep hunger in check, as well.
Does estrogen increase appetite?
Estrogen suppresses our appetite, helping to stop us from overeating. So, as we get older and estrogen levels fall, we can feel more hungry. Progesterone and testosterone may stimulate appetite.
Does HRT make you hungrier?
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) has not been linked to increased feelings of hunger. So, if you’re taking HRT, this may be a reason your appetite has increased.
Which hormones increase appetite?
Ghrelin is the main hormone that increases our appetite – its job is to make sure we consume enough food to keep our energy levels up. Cortisol – a stress hormone – can also make us feel hungrier.