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Fat Cells, Menopausal Hormones and Your Weight

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Dr. Michael Green
Medically Reviewed byDr. Michael GreenMD, OB/GYN Chief Medical OfficerRead Bio
Written ByWinona Editorial Team

The wide array of hormone changes during menopause transition (MT) is likely making it tough to keep weight down, and probably the weight is getting deposited in new ways - like around your belly. Menopause transition includes the phases of perimenopause (typically age 35-45), menopause (45-55), then moves into postmenopause (the rest of your life).

There are many reasons why women gain weight during their menopause transition, but one crucial factor is how your fat cells and menopausal hormones work together to impact body weight, metabolic rate,  and where fat is stored. This article will help clarify why you might be gaining weight, how your fat cells respond to a drop in hormones with menopause, and how to control the hormones, so they don't control you and your weight.

Menopause & Food Cravings

During menopause, many women often have profound food cravings.1Try not to confuse hunger with 'appetite.' Appetite is the want of a specific food - like a craving for ice cream. Hunger is a genuine need to eat anything. Appetite is the urge to eat a particular food— right away - and it's likely food that is a sugary, salty, or fatty snack. These urges are cravings and aren't fueled by actual needs.1

Changes in hormones typically cause these menopausal food cravings. Because of the relationship between hormones and hunger, you may find that you crave specific foods as hormone levels change. You may experience a craving for salty, sweet, and fatty foods which leads you to eat more than average.

By normalizing your hormones you can decrease these overwhelming cravings by directly affecting the appetite center in your brain that regulates your feeling of fullness and satisfaction.2 

The Science of the Hormones Behind Cravings

The array of hormone changes during menopause transition (MT) is likely making you crave particular foods in higher than normal quantities. Studies have shown that certain foods stimulate the brain's reward regions and directly influence our food choices and eating behaviors.1

When we eat certain foods, an area of the brain (the hypothalamus) becomes excited and creates happy, positive feelings. These good feelings make us want to keep eating those foods regularly. The hypothalamus may be a tiny pea-sized area of the brain, but it has an essential job - it regulates the release of hormones related to stress, pleasure, pain, and hunger.1,2

The foods that create this 'happy brain' are called hyper-palatable foods, aka 'comfort foods' because they are quick and easy to digest. Comfort foods can stimulate the release of a full array of hormones that impact how hungry or full we feel, how much we eat, the distribution of fat cells, our feelings of stress, and even our metabolic rate. 

The hormones that play a role in food cravings are: 

  1. Leptin (cause feeling of fullness),

  2. Ghrelin (causes a feeling of hunger) 

  3. Estrogen,

  4. Progesterone, 

  5. Testosterone. 

  6. Insulin, 

  7. Cortisol. 1

Leptin & Ghrelin. If all of the hormones in our bodies are balanced, we can sit down and eat a typical meal, and our appetite hormone leptin will be released at the proper levels to tell our brain that we are full and stop eating. Then, if the body hasn't had any food for several hours, the hormone ghrelin is released from the stomach to signal our brain that we are hungry again, and we will likely start looking for food. 

But, when a person regularly eats comfort foods, there might be an interference in this hungry-full-hungry cycle of hormones. It is almost like creating a bad radio signal, and the brain may start to process hormonal signals improperly. The result is continued cravings even though you've eaten enough food, and the cycle can lead to increased weight gain.1,4,5

Estrogen and Progesterone and Cravings.  Both estrogen and progesterone influence the brain's appetite center in the hypothalamus and regulate appetite, how much you eat, and the distribution of fat cells. 

Cravings are not often discussed with menopause, even though the cravings can be overwhelmingly powerful and intrusive. As women, we are familiar with the monthly fluctuations in hormones. Estrogen and progesterone (and even testosterone) levels rise and fall regularly during the menstrual cycle. But now, when we are in menopause and our estrogen and progesterone levels are low, it can lead to increased food cravings and less satisfaction after eating.1,6,7

The good news is that you can decrease your feelings of hunger directly by normalizing your estrogen levels which can also suppress appetite by decreasing ghrelin levels and increasing the effectiveness of the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin.2 This improvement is especially common in women who experience weight gain as their hormone levels drop due to menopause.1,2

Estrogen, Progesterone, and Testosterone and Fat Cells. The hormones estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone influence your metabolism and the size of fat cells in the body - even moving fat around to specific areas.

Fat cells are like balloons. Depending on how many calories you take in, they can get big or small. When we slim down, fat cells shrink in size, but the number of fat cells we have does not decrease. Normal levels of estrogen help fat cells store less fat or release more fat to be used as energy (metabolized).1,2,

There will always be those people who seem to be able to eat anything and not gain weight. While our "naturally slim" friends are frustrating, studies have shown that overweight people have more fat cells than their "naturally slim" counterparts. So an obese person who loses weight will still have more fat cells than their slim friend, and by losing weight, they are taking fat out of the existing cells but didn't lose any of those cells.

If you imagine fat cells as balloons, thin people have, say 50 balloons that get filled with fat, while their heavier friend has maybe 250 balloons to fill. So if each of the people eats 1,000 extra calories, that fat will be distributed across a larger number of the fat cells in the heavy person. 

Each of their fat cells might only increase in size a bit - while the thin person's fat cells will expand much more in comparison because they have fewer cells (balloons) to put the fat into. As a result, the thin person's fat cells are bigger (plumper) when compared to the size of the heavier person.

Estrogen also increases brown fat activity, called brown adipose tissue (BAT). The fat cells we usually think about are called white adipose tissue (WAT). There is another type of fat tissue called BAT. BAT plays a vital role in thermogenesis (the production of heat by your body - like your body's furnace) and how many calories you burn in a day.

When estrogen levels are normal, it can stimulate BAT to burn more calories (increase your metabolic rate) and reduce the amount of stored fat.4 When estrogen levels drop, so does the heat of the BAT furnace.

Testosterone is critical to maintaining muscle mass and metabolic rate. When you have leaner body mass you have increased metabolism and increased energy. When normalizing dropped testosterone, you can decrease the amount of fat in adipose tissues. Regardless of your weight, the more muscle you have, and the less fat, the higher your metabolic rate because muscle uses a lot more energy than fat while at rest.

Insulin. Insulin is the hormone produced in the pancreas that regulates your blood sugar levels. Insulin allows your body to use sugar (glucose) from the carbohydrates you've eaten and use it for energy, or if your body doesn't need energy right now, it will store it as fat for use later. 

Estrogen and progesterone directly affect how your cells respond to insulin. The changes in your hormone levels with menopause can trigger fluctuations in your blood sugar level, producing new and stronger food cravings.  

If insulin is not converting food into energy properly, you can experience cravings, leading to increased food consumption. Type 1 diabetes results from the body not producing and using insulin properly.

Cortisol. Stress gets the blame for many changes in how the body works, including increased food cravings. When you feel stressed, your body naturally releases the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is the "stress" hormone. Chronic stress has been shown to increase the cravings for those hyper-palatable sweet, fatty, sugary, calorie-dense foods. 1,8

Whether accurate or perceived, chronic stress can cause a persistent elevation of hormones, leading to a risk of many health problems, including weight gain.2 Higher cortisol levels can increase the storage of fat cells away from the hips, breasts, and thighs and move them to the belly. In their fat deposition, some women call that change my 'spare tire.'  

Exercise and meditation can reduce your food cravings that are due to stress. Meditation helps you become more mindful of your eating habits. Research has shown that exercise decreases your appetite for up to 24 hours after a workout and reduces food cravings.


Hormonal imbalance symptoms occur when there are too much or not enough particular hormones in your body. It doesn't take a significant imbalance for you to experience symptoms. Slight imbalances of various hormones can cause food cravings, heightened fat deposition, and other weight-related conditions.

Bioidentical hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can bring your hormones back into balance and reduce your unwanted cravings that contribute to stress and unwanted weight gain. Estrogen can decrease appetite, cause fat cells to store less fat, and signal cells to release more fat so the body can metabolize it. Estrogen increases the activity of brown fat, which can cause more calories (higher metabolic rate).2-4

The menopause transition is spread out for decades. If you're between the ages of 35-65, you are likely suffering symptoms related to the ongoing, steady decrease of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. Visit TODAY to start balancing your hormones. 

“This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.”

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