I'm A Metabolic Health Expert: This May Explain Why You Feel Hungry All The Time
Do you ever find yourself watching the clock as it gets close to mealtimes? Are you often short-tempered, shaky, or "hangry" in the hour before a meal? Have you noticed your friends and family seem to dodge you three times a day and come out of hiding after you've eaten?
Well, if you're going through menopause, hormones are likely at the root of your problems. In the beginning stages of menopause, your body undergoes a series of changes all at once. One common change that many women experience prior to menopause is a ravenous appetite.
To minimize this feeling, you need to understand why your body is reacting this way. When we understand the why behind a symptom, it empowers us to make informed choices that help us return to a healthy relationship with food. So, if hormones are the root of the problem, what causes imbalanced hormones in the first place? Allow me to explain.
What causes hunger during menopause?
You may already know that our body runs on calories. If your body was a car, you would need more gas to go on a road trip than you would need to commute to the office. The same is true for your calories. The more you move, the more you need to eat.
Our appetite is controlled by a complex system of hormones, all of which need to be in balance to function. When your body is working well, you eat until you feel satisfied and the hunger "signal" turns off.
But, it's not always that simple.
Hormones are the body's communicators and regulators. They are in charge of making you "feel full." So that means when your hormones are off-kilter, they wreak havoc on your body.
The sex hormones—estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone—fluctuate before, during, and after menopause. Most women are familiar with these three hormones. However, they aren't the only ones responsible for "hanger."
What are the hunger hormones?
Two lesser-known hormones called ghrelin and leptin control the signals that tell our body whether we are hungry or full. These two hormones also undergo changes during menopause.
Ghrelin originates in your stomach. It passes through the bloodstream and into the brain to signal that your stomach is empty and it's time to eat. We call this feeling hunger.
Leptin does the opposite. It's made in your fat cells, and its primary job is to let your brain know when you've got plenty of fat available for fuel. You feel satiated with no need to eat.
In other words, your hunger hormone level increases just as your "I've-eaten-enough" hormone levels go down. And the result? For some women, an almost uncontrollable midlife hunger.
As we know, many women do gain weight during perimenopause and menopause with a corresponding increased risk of stroke and heart disease2. While it is not necessarily menopause that causes that weight gain, research suggests a correlation between your hunger hormones and menopause. However, that's certainly not the whole story.
Cortisol and insulin: the untold hunger hormones.
Cortisol (the stress hormone) and insulin (the hormone that regulates blood sugar) can also contribute to midlife hunger pangs.
While they may not be directly associated with menopausal hormone changes, many women's insulin and cortisol hormones may be off-balance in midlife. If that's the case for you, cortisol and insulin could be contributing to an increase in appetite.
That wouldn't be so bad if you developed a craving for leafy green vegetables. Unfortunately, these cravings usually send us straight to the cookie jar as we look for easy-to-digest, simple carbohydrates.
Insulin's job is to keep our blood sugar from going too high, while cortisol keeps it from plunging too low. It's not hard to see that sugar and carb cravings will occur when either of the two is out of balance.
Insulin and cortisol are like the bookend hormones that control blood sugar and stress. And unfortunately, in our modern Western society, most women have accumulated significant cortisol dysfunction by the time they reach midlife.
What's more, because cortisol and insulin levels are not routinely checked in mainstream medicine, many doctors are unaware of the relationship between these hormones and appetite changes in midlife women. That makes it difficult for them to offer any meaningful help.
We often don't realize how imbalanced our hormones are until it becomes a problem. So we continue on the "stress train" of overwork and over-worry, both of which contribute to even higher cortisol levels and insulin resistance.
Understanding the blood sugar roller coaster.
Your body is desperate to protect itself from danger, so it attempts to balance out-of-control cortisol by having you consume more sugar. Of course, in the long run, this response is a short-term fix with disastrous long-term consequences.
The solution is to get off this amusement park ride once and for all. And don't buy another ticket!
Every time you take a ride on the blood sugar roller coaster, your hunger goes up. You'll know when that happens because you get "hangry" and want to eat the wallpaper only two to three hours after eating. What's more, your concentration's gone out the window, and you'll snap at anyone who asks even a simple question. You may even feel shaky or weak.
If all that sounds familiar, you are probably on the blood sugar roller coaster, and it's time to get off.
How to maintain balanced hunger hormones.
You may be thinking, it's all well and good to say that I want to get off of the ride, but what can I do to make it a reality? Here are a few of my go-to tips to naturally balance your ghrelin, leptin, insulin, and cortisol hormones:
- Limit the sugar-filled snacks. Replace them with nuts, seeds, gluten-free crackers, avocado, dark chocolate, nut butter, berries, and other more satiating foods.
- Eat meals every four to six hours, and snack regularly. If you know you get "hangry" at 3 p.m. every day, plan to eat a satisfying lunch and have a healthy snack ready.
- Eat high protein and complex carbs with healthy fats. Protein provides the essential amino acids your body needs every day and keeps you feeling fuller for longer. Studies show that eating between 20 and 30 grams of protein at each meal suppresses ghrelin and increases your body's ability to manage weight3.
- Practice mindful meal hygiene. Instead of eating on the run, make mealtime an event. Sit down and stop working while you eat. Take several deep breaths in and out to amp up your vagus nerve, calm the mind, and aid with digestion.
- Take your time when eating. Stop putting stress on your stomach by forcing it to deal with huge chunks of food. Chew each bite 30 times until it's virtually a liquid when you swallow. True, you'll have to concentrate on doing this until it becomes a habit, and mealtimes will inevitably take longer. However, this process makes digestion much easier for your gastrointestinal system and gives you time to enjoy your food.
- Avoid strenuous activity for at least 60 minutes after eating. It takes time for your stomach to digest a meal, and exercising straight away can lead to poor digestion, bloating, and discomfort. Give your body time to start digesting in peace. A low-impact walk can be a helpful way to sneak in movement.
- Avoid intermittent fasting as this may exacerbate your appetite initially. While there are benefits of intermittent fasting, menopause may not be the best time to try it, especially if you're experiencing midlife hunger pangs. You may find you're overeating if you wait too long between meals.
- Use nutraceuticals to stabilize blood sugars and balance hormones. Nutraceuticals are the vitamins, minerals, and other parts of food that provide health and medical benefits. Cinnamon is one food that's particularly helpful for stabilizing blood sugar levels, and chromium is another.
- Get into HIIT. Including one or two high-intensity interval training sessions in your weekly exercise routine will help balance insulin levels out and get you off the blood sugar roller coaster.
- Add strength training to the mix. Strength training helps build muscle mass, stabilizes blood sugars and insulin, and raises the resting metabolic rate. The older you get, the more muscle mass you'll lose each year unless you take steps to combat it.
- Take time to relax. Relaxation response exercises, like meditation and deep breathing, calm your overstimulated mind and your nervous system. Taking time to relax, journal, and practice gratitude reduces stress and lowers your cortisol levels over time.
- Relax with EFT. The Emotional Freedom Technique involves tapping on your body's meridian points to reduce stress and restore energy balance.
If you find yourself ravenous either before, during, or after menopause, your hormones may be responsible. But you can choose to get off the "hangry" roller coaster ride any time you want.
Supporting your body begins with self-awareness and persistence. By making some simple lifestyle and food habit changes, you can manage the major metabolic hormones to help regain a healthy appetite and life.
Kyrin Dunston, M.D., FACOG, is a Board Certified OB/GYN with Fellowship training in Anti-Aging, Metabolic and Functional Medicine. She specializes in bioidentical hormones, gut restoration and anti-aging medicine.
Leading by example OBGYN Dr. Kyrin Dunston lost a life changing 100 pounds and healed herself from chronic disease using natural treatments. Now, she specializes in helping women heal, lose weight and regain energy at midlife naturally by treating the root cause in her digital clinic.
She hosts the weekly Her Brilliant Health Revolution podcast, the Her Brilliant Health Secrets YouTube channel, and the Stop the Menopause Madness Summit where 53 experts share their top strategies to lose weight, regain energy, balance hormones and moods, feel sexy and confident, look great and master midlife.