Hormones and weight gain after 40 | does sleep play a role?

The following post is the 4th in a 5-part series about hormones and weight gain after age 40. Parts one, two and three can be read by clicking on the links below. 

Part 4: Weight gain and sleep

After hot flashes and night sweats, what are the two most common complaints of peri-menopausal women? (other than husbands who can’t seem to clean up the counter or put the toilet seats down after themselves…)

I’ll give you a hint; one tends to go up and the other, down.

Weight gain (especially around-the-belly poundage) and sleep (or lack thereof).

Did you answer correctly? And did you know that the two might be related?

Study after study of sleep duration and body mass index show an inverse relationship between the two; people that get less sleep also tend to be overweight.

When we eliminate the participants whose disordered sleeping is a consequence of being overweight (recall that correlation can’t, by itself be used to infer causation; check out my post on understanding the results of human health studies if you’re unclear on the concept), we find that moderate sleep deprivation disrupts a number of hormonal systems, several of which are involved in appetite, carbohydrate metabolism and fat storage.

  • Cortisol. Production of cortisol varies rhythmically throughout the day, being highest upon waking and declining to its lowest levels of the day at the time you typically go to sleep. Chronic, moderate sleep deprivation interrupts this diurnal cycle, causing end-of-the-day cortisol levels to remain high. Over time, elevated cortisol levels can lead to insulin resistance (the body’s inability to respond to insulin’s message to store nutrients), obesity and diabetes. Elevated cortisol levels are of particular concern to menopausal and peri-menopausal women, as the combination of high cortisol and low estrogen contributes to middle-of-the-body weight gain (aka the “muffin top”).
  • Leptin. Secreted by fat cells, leptin is the satiety hormone, telling your brain when you’ve consumed enough calories and reducing appetite to prevent overeating. Leptin regulation is markedly affected by sleep duration. Chronic sleep deprivation results in lower circulating levels of leptin, increased appetite and higher caloric intake, even in the absence of increased physical activity (i.e., short duration sleepers have potentially more wakeful hours to be physically active; in the studies cited above, they weren’t, either because they chose not to be or their activity was restricted by the researcher). Given that many menopausal and perimenopausal women experience insomnia and middle-of-the-night awakening, even those that attempt to get an adequate number of hours of sleep each night may not.
  • Ghrelin. Working in opposition to leptin, ghrelin is secreted by the stomach and stimulates appetite. Short sleep duration is associated with elevated ghrelin production and increased hunger and appetite, in particular an appetite for foods high in carbohydrates (hello chocolate!). Similarly, declining estrogen levels (both during the period leading up to menopause and during the second half of the menstrual cycle in regularly cycling women) also trigger an increased appetite for sweet and starchy foods.
  • Glucose tolerance. The sweet and starchy carbohydrates we consume are broken down, by the gut, into smaller, glucose molecules, to be used as fuel by our muscles and brain. Excess glucose is stored as fat, a process triggered by the release of insulin by the pancreas. Chronic short sleep duration results in a marked reduction in acute insulin response; glucose remains in the blood stream for a much longer period of time after consumption leading to a pre-diabetic state after as little as a week of sleep restriction.

So ‘yes’, in answer to the question posed in the title of this post, sleep does play a role in weight gain after 40. In particular when short sleep duration is frequent, consumption of starchy carbohydrates is chronic and estrogen levels are in decline.

The bottom line? In addition to paying attention to nutrition (less processed please) and adding strength training to your fitness schedule (build muscle to burn fat), developing good sleep habits appears to be key to long term health, happiness and quality of life during the midlife years. How are you going to improve yours?

Although I’ve found a number of ‘tricks’ to improving my own sleep health, I’d love to hear yours.

Do you have any pre-bedtime rituals that help you fall and stay asleep?

How do you deal with middle-of-the-night wake ups?

Comments

  1. wellll :-) I do have a rocking night time routine.
    I DO DO DO fall right asleep and stay asleep.
    so theres that?
    I just need mo’ hours in the day.
    and for you (me? nah you :-)) to write about kids and weight gain and sleep.
    Miz recently posted..I’m running a half-marathon (AKA practicing what I long to preach).My Profile

    • And you know? The same relationship between sleep and BMI also applies to kids, teens and men. They just don’t have the extra estrogen piece of the puzzle.

  2. I found that if I reduced the amount of coffee and/or alcohol I drank in the evening, I slept so much better – ie. no night sweats.

    We also have an herbal HRT in Canada from Swiss Extracts that helped too.

    Now that that is all behind me, I sleep as well as I ever did. I think that just knowing there WILL be an end to it helps!
    Elle recently posted..E-A-T … Think Before You Eat.My Profile

    • I totally agree with you about the coffee and alcohol Elle. In fact, I cut off caffeine by 2 pm most days.
      I need to look into that herbal remedy you mentioned, although I’ve been finding the night sweats and insomnia to be a little less lately (maybe there’s light at the end of the tunnel for me too!)

  3. I can tell you that it took all I had to make it thru those years & years & years!!!! I also had many periods of time that I woke up every 30 minutes. Nothing I did helped that – it was the hormones & it made life pretty dang tough! ;)
    Jody – Fit at 56 recently posted..I Wanted to Post Today but I am Sick. :( My Profile

  4. And would you like to know what I am going to do RIGHT NOW? SLEEP! ;) I typically unwind for an hour, and then I PASS OUT! I never really have trouble actually sleeping because I pack my days to the BRIM with activity!! Did I just JINX myself? LOL!
    GiGi Eats Celebrities recently posted..Those Are Some Bad WordsMy Profile

    • Gigi, have a full and active life definitely does help with sleep! Although, even with my level of activity, I still suffer from short sleep and interrupted sleep every 3-4 weeks. Darn hormones!

  5. This was so true for me. In 2012 I couldn’t do anything to lose 5 lbs. Thankfully in 2013 something must have regularized and I was able to drop some weight. I did start forcing myself to go to bed one hour earlier and perhaps that made the difference. I really work at making sure I don’t stay up to late and get enough sleep. I don’t get great sleep though (wake up a lot) but hopefully that extra hour helps.
    Robin recently posted..My Dance Card is Filling UPMy Profile

    • Robin, I love hearing stories like yours. It’s amazing how a simple thing like getting an extra hour of sleep can make such a difference.

  6. yes, working on more sleep right now too! we need our sleep. And this just proves why!

    • You’d think that sleep would be the easiest piece of the puzzle, wouldn’t you? It’s not like you have to make time for it or resist the temptation of it…

  7. These are all things that I have been experiencing lately. I just turned 39 in January and had already started to feel differently in my body way before that, but lately…..holy cow!
    Just a few of my symptoms: waking up in the middle of the night (which I NEVER did before), night sweats (again, something new), craving tons and tons and tons of sugar, my cycle has also changed and is unpredictable (something that used to be like clockwork), and finally, high levels of anxiety.
    Ugh.
    I’ve cried for no apparent reason and then wanted to punch someone in the face! I’ve also wanted my mom to hug me and take it all away! Lol :)
    I get into bed around 9 or 9:30 but usually wake up around 1 or 2 to use the bathroom. With the lack of sleep and the cravings I am finding it difficult to even set nutrition and workout goals. I used to could just pop out of bed and start my workouts. Now? I have to give myself and hour to wake up and even then I may not even do my workout or I’ll wait until I get home. It’s pretty frustrating because I love routine! Kind of a lot, but it feels really good to get this out!!
    I am so so glad you wrote this. It really does help to know that there are others that deal with this and have found a way to adjust. :)
    Thank you!!
    Brandi recently posted..Ready to go!My Profile

    • Brandi, do you know about the online training group I offer for peri-menopausal women? The next session starts on April 13th, with registration opening March 30th. I’d love to have you join us; you’d get a lot out of the support group, I think. Email me if you have any questions!

  8. Hot flashes wake me up a lot, but I try to use that time to force myself to do a progressive relaxation/body awareness/ mindfulness type exercise, which is so freakin’ boring it often helps me doze off.

    Weirdly enough, I had more trouble sleeping when I was drinking less coffee! I’ve discovered that while it perks me up during the day, the day-long buzz finally wearing off also helps me crash at night. WIN!

    • I’d love to hear more about your night time routine! I was up at 4:30 this morning and tossed and turned until about 6. Only happens a few nights of the month, but so frustrating when it does!

  9. I’m so glad I found this website! I turned 40in August and ever since then, I have had the hardest time trying to keep up with my exercising routine. I don’t get a lot of sleep, I don’t drink a lot of water, I do exercise regularly and it seems to not be helping at all. I gain wait seriously fast and have the hardest time trying to lose the 5 or 6 I gain during the holidays. I’m going to have to change everything in my life if I don’t want to end up fat. The thought of never attaining the body I have always strived for is weighing heavily on me as well. Also, constant mood swings for no reason…ugh getting old is seriously sucking!

    • Jenny, I wish you’d found us a couple of weeks ago! I run an online training course for 40+ women that’s in it’s third of 10 weeks right now. Keep your eyes open as I’ll be offering it again in the fall and would love to have you join in!

Trackbacks

  1. […] Better sleep. One of the most common complaints of the menopause and peri-menopause years is still disruption. Difficulty falling asleep. Difficulty staying asleep. Middle-of-the-night insomnia. Exercise of all types is known to improve sleep, but strength training is particularly beneficial for 40+ women, due to it’s hormone-balancing effects. […]

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