During perimenopause, with the constantly changing levels of hormones, you may start to notice that maintaining your normal healthy body weight becomes much more challenging. Weight maintenance can be difficult, especially when menopause cravings and appetite seem like out-of-control saboteurs.
This article will walk you through the summary of the hormones that impact your appetite and how these hormones are adversely impacted by the decrease in other hormones, specifically estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, in perimenopause and menopause.
During menopause, many women have profound food cravings. (1) We associate giving in to cravings with a lack of willpower, but food cravings have biological reasons. Try 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. While appetite cravings are different from actual hunger, they often feel the same and are just as powerful.
When we experience an intense urge to eat a particular food— right away – and it’s likely a sugary, salty, or fatty snack, but these urges are cravings, not hunger pangs or genuine need (1).
As women, we are all too familiar with the food cravings that come and go throughout our monthly cycles and stages in our reproductive lives. Estrogen and progesterone play a critical role in these cravings. For example, when we still had our monthly periods, many of us felt we MUST EAT chocolate right before our periods.
Changes in hormones typically cause these menopausal food cravings. By normalizing your estrogen and progesterone levels, you can decrease these overwhelming cravings by directly affecting the appetite center in your brain that regulates your feeling of fullness and satisfaction.  This article will help you identify why you have your food cravings and how to control them so they don’t control you.
Menopause & Food Cravings
The complete ‘Menopause Transition’ (MT) can last 20 years or more. MT includes the phases of perimenopause (typically age 35-45), and menopause (somewhere between 45-55). After the transition, you are officially postmenopausal.
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. With hormone receptors all over our bodies, it is critical to keep hormones balanced.
Sugar cravings are not often discussed with menopause, even though the cravings can be overwhelmingly powerful and intrusive. Bioidentical hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can bring your hormones back into balance and reduce your unwanted cravings that can be contributing to stress and unwanted weight gain. To effectively deal with menopausal food cravings, let’s better understand the science behind these cravings.
The Science of the Hormones Behind Cravings
During menopause transition (MT), hormone changes are 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. (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 are typically sweet, salty, and fatty. Eating these foods can stimulate the release of a full array of hormones that impact how hungry or full we feel, our feelings of stress, and even our metabolic rate.
The hormones that play a role in food cravings are:
- Leptin (cause feeling of fullness), and
- Ghrelin (causes the feeling of hunger). (1)
The hormones listed above influence your appetite, how much you eat, and the distribution of fat cells. If all of the hormones in our bodies are balanced, we can eat a typical meal, and the appetite hormone leptin releases at the correct levels, and we will stop eating. 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.
As women, we are familiar with the monthly fluctuations in hormones. Estrogen and progesterone (and even testosterone) levels rise and regularly fall during the menstrual cycle. But now, when we are in menopause, estrogen levels are low, creating increased food cravings and less satisfaction after eating. (1)
The good news is that you can decrease your feelings of hunger by normalizing your estrogen levels to suppress your appetite. Studies suggest that hormone replacement therapy (HRT) may help reduce the sudden upswing in appetite during peri- and menopause.
Hormones control pretty much everything in our bodies, so of course, there are hormones that make us feel full or hungry. Those hormones are called “hunger hormones,” are “leptin” and “ghrelin.” (1)
What are the Hunger Hormones?
Ghrelin and leptin are two hormones discussed a lot concerning appetite regulation. Leptin is an appetite suppressant, while ghrelin is an appetite stimulant. (2) Leptin increases the rate of thermogenesis (or the creation of heat in your body) and therefore impacts your metabolic rate.
Leptin and ghrelin regulate each other – when one goes up, the other goes down. When these two hormone levels are disrupted, weight gain and obesity can result. Any shift in the delicate balance between ghrelin and leptin can drastically affect our body’s ability to regulate how much we eat and our perception of hunger and fullness.
Actions of Leptin
Leptin is a satiety (satisfied) hormone that tells your brain that you are full and you need to stop eating. Leptin is best understood as the opposite of ghrelin, acting as the body’s satiety signal.
Leptin is released from fat cells and travels in the blood to your brain, signals that you are full, and acts as an ‘appetite suppressor.’ Levels of leptin are lower in thin people and higher in overweight people. Because fat cells produce leptin, obese people have too much-circulating leptin, and your body can become resistant to it. When your body becomes resistant, your brain doesn’t recognize that you are full, so you continue to eat and gain weight. Many obese people have leptin resistance, so the appetite-suppressing effects of leptin aren’t working.
Leptin has many other roles, including regulating blood pressure and the immune system. (4)
Actions of Ghrelin
Ghrelin has the opposite job when compared to leptin. Ghrelin is a hormone released by your stomach and signals the brain that you need to eat. Ghrelin increases appetite and plays a role in body weight. Ghrelin can increase food intake by up to 30%. (3)
Not only does ghrelin tell your brain you are finished eating, but it also regulates how quickly hunger comes back after you eat. When ghrelin levels go up, you feel hungry and then the levels go down for about 3 hrs after a meal. Ghrelin is sometimes thought of as the ‘bad hormone’ if you are trying to lose weight.
Ghrelin stimulates the desire to eat and can result in obesity if not properly regulated. Ghrelin levels rise before a meal and give you an appetite or the impulse to start looking for food. Once you have eaten a meal, ghrelin should go down after meals.
Ghrelin is called the ‘hunger hormone’ because it stimulates appetite, increases food intake, and promotes fat storage, but it has other jobs, including (2, 3, 4)
- Regulating blood sugar,
- Decrease insulin levels, (5)
- Reduces heat production, breathing rate, and blood pressure,
- Promoting muscle development,
- Regulating bone growth,
- Sleep-wake rhythms,
- Taste sensations.
What Does Cortisol Do?
The drop in estrogen and progesterone with perimenopause cortisol levels are directly impacted. Cortisol is the so-called ‘stress hormone’ and can create all kinds of trouble for women who want to take-off weight. (6) When cortisol rises, it can promote the conversion of blood sugar into fat for long-term storage as adipose tissue. While we understand the need for this type of survival adaptation thousands of years ago when people faced famines, it’s not a necessary mechanism today. (6-9)
As estrogen levels drop with menopause, the body cannot always effectively regulate cortisol, blood sugar, and insulin. When estrogen drops with perimenopause, weight gain can be quite fast.
What Does HRT Have to Do With It?
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can counteract these adverse effects of cortisol and can reduce the propensity to store fat by lowering cortisol levels.
Our hormones have to work together and be balanced. If one hormone is too high, it can throw off the whole system. During menopause, our bodies are doing their best to adapt. However, our hormones aren’t always able to keep up with the changes.
Not only will normalizing estrogen and progesterone impact our appetite hormones, but also how our body uses (metabolizes) carbohydrates, fats, and proteins and controls your sleep-wake cycle. Without a balance of hormones, we know that women feel an elevated appetite, eat more, and gain weight.
Correcting hormonal imbalances with HRT is the most effective way to get hormones back on track, stop the scale creep, and return to a healthy weight.
In summary, estrogen and progesterone can impact other hormones to increase or decrease menopause cravings. Appetite hormones cause fat cells to store less fat and signal fat cells to release more fat so the body can metabolize it and you can lose weight. Estrogen increases fat activity, which can cause an estrogen-induced burning of more calories. (2-4)
The Menopause Transition can last 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. It is critical to keep hormones balanced.
Comfort food cravings can be overwhelmingly powerful and intrusive. Bioidentical hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can bring your hormones back into balance and reduce your unwanted cravings that can be contributing to stress and unwanted weight gain. To effectively deal with menopausal food cravings, contact our anti-aging wellness center today for your FREE online consultation with a physician. Winona’s HRT is made from yams and is identical to our body’s hormones naturally produced.