Menopause and diabetes risk: what's the connection?
Either menopause is Mother Nature trying to kill us, or it’s her way of signaling that it’s time to start taking really good care of ourselves.
Considering Mother Nature also supplies a lot of nutrition for hormones we need to achieve and maintain good health, we’re going with the latter.
Loss of estrogen does, directly and indirectly, increase our risk of developing type 2 diabetes. And since having diabetes increases our risk of other health conditions, we definitely want to reduce any chance of setting some unhealthy wheels in motion.
What does diabetes do to my body?
Nothing good. Type 2 diabetes increases your risk of heart disease and stroke, it can lead to kidney disease, vision problems like menopause cataracts, nerve issues, and more. Because it affects blood vessels and nerves, diabetes can diabetes can impact any part of your body, though some are more vulnerable to its affects than others.
Diabetes is the #6 killer of women aged 45-54 and #4 of women between 55 and 64, so clearly we need to understand and minimize our risk.
How does menopause contribute to diabetes risk?
Both men and women are more vulnerable to metabolic diseases as we age, but it appears losing estrogen can speed up and intensify the process.
- Estrogen may play a role in managing insulin, says Michael J Breus Ph.D. Certainly many women who have diabetes find it more difficult to regulate blood sugar levels during and after the menopause transition, indicating a hormonal impact.
- In perimenopause, hunger hormones fluctuate right along with estrogen and progesterone, often causing a spike in the hunger-causing hormone ghrelin and a reduction of the appetite-dampening hormone leptin. Increased appetite can lead to weight gain, which is a risk factor for developing diabetes.
- Speaking of weight gain, many women put on more fat around their stomach at this time, and excess abdominal weight can increase diabetes risk.
- Menopause is also frequently a time of increased stress, increased fatigue, and decreased quality sleep, all of which can make you more vulnerable to developing diabetes, especially if you exercise less than previously and your diet is not exactly ideal.
Women who enter menopause early (before age 46) or late (after age 55) may have an even higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, says a study by National Institute of Health, so if you’re in either of those categories, you really need to prioritize healthy choices.
If you need help making life changes to control your diabetes, a menopause-certified health coach can be helpful. Book 30 minutes for your personal consultation with a health coach.
Speaking of healthy choices …
So what should you do to minimize your risk?
According to the North American Menopause Society, you should get tested for diabetes every 3 years beginning at age 45. If you have risk factors such as a family history of the disease, blood pressure above 135/80, or if you are overweight, had gestational diabetes during pregnancy, or have PCOS, you may want to test more frequently. Some ethnicities also have a higher rate of the disease, so if you are Hispanic, African American, Native American, Asian, or Pacific Islander, more frequent testing might also be recommended.
In many cases, type 2 diabetes can be prevented, managed or even reversed with some healthy lifestyle choices. A study by the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases found that losing a modest amount of weight (7 percent of body weight was the goal), and improving diet and exercise was the most successful at helping people at high risk avoid developing type 2 diabetes. Those who adopted the Modified Lifestyle Change Program reduced risk by 58 percent. And those over 60 fared best of all, reducing their rate by 71 percent! And change really was modest: eat less fat and fewer calories, get women's fitness motivation, increase exercise to 150 minutes per week.
If you’re interested in joining a program based on the study, you can find the one nearest you at the Diabetes Prevention Support Center website. You can also check out The Diabetes Diet from HelpGuide.org for suggestions on how to improve your food choices.
If you smoke, stop. Or at least reduce your exposure to nicotine as much as you can. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smokers are 30 – 40 percent more likely than non-smokers to develop diabetes, so do what you can to avoid the unnecessary risk. If you already have diabetes, smoking can make the disease harder to control. (Smoking intensifies many menopause symptoms – remember: mother nature is trying to get you to take better care of yourself.) Alcohol can also increase risk, so limit intake to one drink a day or less.
Prioritize sleep. A single night of total sleep deprivation was as detrimental to insulin sensitivity as six months of eating a high-fat diet! While most of us aren’t dealing with “total” sleep deprivation, interrupted or poor sleep can cause weight gain and increased risk of diabetes. Getting better sleep during menopause is often really hard, so give yourself every advantage by practicing good sleep hygiene.
So much feels out of our control during this particular phase of life, but much of your diabetes risk can be managed. Eat better. Don’t smoke. Exercise. Not only will you minimize diabetes risk, you’ll likely also have a healthier heart and brain, a trimmer waistline, and reduced menopause symptoms.
Do you have diabetes or are you at high risk of developing the disease? What do you do to manage your health, and is it working? We’d love to know more. You can comment here, find us on Facebook or in Midlife & Menopause Solutions, our Facebook group. You can also join us, anonymously, if you prefer, on our community forums.
*Menopause is defined as 12 months without a period.
Have you taken our Menopause Assessment?
Join over 100,000 women to learn more about your symptoms and where you are in the menopause journey.