The Link Between Menopause and Blood Sugar | Stella
Long-term health
11 Mins

Five reasons to quit sugar during menopause and how to do it

byJanet Padfield

Sugar really is pretty tasty and it’s no surprise we are all hooked on it, given how addictive it is. Sugar is added to foods to give sweetness and it stimulates the reward centre in our brain, producing dopamine, making us feel wonderful. But it’s also a really good idea to review just how much sugar you are consuming during your menopause journey and find out more about how menopause and blood sugar are linked...

What does sugar do to your body?

When we eat foods containing high levels of sugars, we get an increase in blood glucose. This triggers a release of insulin which then signals to the liver, muscles and fat cells to take in the excess sugar. Some are stored as glycogen which is used to make energy but any excess is converted to fat stores. This internal sugar high followed by a sugar low is what makes us feel euphoric for a short time with a subsequent slump in energy.

Not only is this “sugar rollercoaster” exhausting, over time it can increase food cravings, weight and a risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke. The good news is that addressing your sugar intake now can reduce your risk of chronic disease in later life.

Why is sugar an issue during perimenopause?

There are several reasons why eating sugar might exacerbate symptoms while your body is going through such a big hormonal shift. Here are the key 5 reasons why blood sugar and menopause can be linked, and why you might want to rethink how much of the white stuff you eat:

1. Sugar adds to your stress

Did you know that having a high blood glucose level is actually a stress on your body? High blood glucose increases your stress hormone cortisol. High cortisol reduces how much progesterone you can make which is likely to leave you with a hormone imbalance exacerbating many perimenopause symptoms:

2. You can’t tolerate sugar as well

Oestrogen levels fluctuate wildly during perimenopause and once your periods have stopped, your levels stabilise at a significantly lower level. Low oestrogen levels reduce sensitivity to insulin which means that you cannot clear sugar from the blood as efficiently anymore. The impact of this is an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, weight gain and poor mood.

3. It’s making you gain belly fat

During perimenopause, the production of oestrogen switches from the ovaries to the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands also make our stress hormones and, as explained above, sugar increases cortisol. If the adrenal glands are busy making stress hormones, they might not be able to take on the role of making oestrogen. 

Your body needs to find another way to naturally increase oestrogen production and it does that through storing fat around the tummy. The fat stored here is known as adipose tissue and it’s been found to produce oestrogen…it’s like a plan B for the body but is undesirable for us! The calories in sugar will make this process happen much quicker and to a greater extent.

Learn more about menopause and weight gain in our symptoms library.

4. It’s zapping your energy

The sugar roller coaster which occurs when you eat foods high in refined sugars is already tiring for the body. The rise of cortisol from the sugars and the naturally declining oestrogen can have an impact on how well your thyroid functions too. Your thyroid sets your metabolic rate and determines how well you produce energy so you may experience higher levels of fatigue. The low energy is likely to then increase your desire for more sugar-rich foods as a pick me up….a real vicious cycle.

5. It’s messing with your beneficial bacteria

You have more bacteria than cells living in your body. The health of this microbiome is critical to our overall health. A high sugar diet feeds the non-beneficial bacteria and allows these yeasts and bacteria to colonise and cause issues.  This can increase the risk of urinary tract infections (UTIs) and Thrush, plus also cause bloating and digestive upset. With menopause comes an increase in vaginal atrophy and susceptibility to UTIs that consuming sugar may not help.

Read more about the stages of menopause.

Can high blood sugar cause hot flashes?

There seems to be some link between high blood sugar and hot flushes during menopause. According to one study, women with higher blood sugar levels had more frequent hot flashes. The study was conducted across 3,000 women in their 40s and 50s over eight years, and found the link regardless of their weight or oestrogen levels. That doesn’t prove definitively that high blood sugar causes hot flashes, but if you find you’re having a hard time with them, then it might be worth cutting back on your sugar intake to see if that helps.

How much sugar is OK?

According to the latest government guidelines, adults should consume no more than 30g of sugar per day which is the equivalent of 7 teaspoons worth. To put this into perspective a single chocolate bar typically contains 6 teaspoons, a jam-filled doughnut is around 5 and a can of fizzy drink is as much as 8 teaspoons.

What foods count as sugar?

It goes without saying that white sugar counts towards your daily sugar allowance but did you know that maple syrup, coconut sugar, honey, date syrup, dextrose, barley malt and agave are all sugars too. There are approximately 75 different names for sugar and they do all count! 

Also, all dried fruits and juices count too. This is because dehydrating or breaking down fibres to liquid concentrates the sugar content and is a form of processing. 

Luckily, whole fruits and vegetables and milk sugars do not count.

With some foods – sweets, fizzy pop, biscuits and cakes – it’s obvious that they contain sugar. The danger is the hidden sugars. Foods to watch out for include hidden sugars in cooking sauces, condiments, cereal bars, cereals and flavoured yoghurts.

How can I know how much sugar is in a product?

Getting familiar with the nutrition labels on foods is key to understanding how nutritious a food is and how much sugar it contains. First, you’ll want to be looking at the ingredients list to see if there is any sugar in the first three ingredients. If there is, it’s likely to have quite high levels.

Next, you’ll need to look at the nutrition grid. Go down to the row that says “carbohydrates – of which sugars” and go along to the column with the portion guide.  This will tell you how many grams of sugar is in one portion of that food. Each 4g is equivalent to 1 teaspoon – aim to keep within the 7-teaspoon allowance each day.

Tips for quitting sugar during menopause

TIP #1 – Understanding why you eat it

Have you ever considered why you opt for sugary foods? Is it as a comfort, a reward, through boredom or just a habit? Understanding why you get your sugar cravings is the first step in quitting. If you know you are comforting yourself, consider what else might help that isn’t food-related such as a bath, calling a friend or watching Netflix. If it’s down to boredom then what could you do instead to fill your time?

TIP #2 – The power of rewards

Quitting or certainly limiting sugar is hard. Putting some simple rewards in place can be a great way to motivate yourself. The only rule here is that the reward cannot be food or drink related so you’ll need to have a think. Why not give yourself a target such as 1-week sugar-free and I can buy myself a bunch of flowers, 2 weeks and I can get my nails done, etc.

TIP #3  – Distraction techniques

Distracting yourself when you get a sugar craving can work well. Quite often you’ll be bored or tired and you’ll want to reach for a biscuit or a chocolate bar. To use a distraction technique, you’ll need to come up with something that is going to keep you busy for 5 to 10 minutes as soon as you get a craving. It could be to go for a walk around the block, to run up and down a few flights of stairs, go and read a chapter of your book or run the vacuum cleaner around the floors. Taking yourself away from the situation can allow the craving to subside. More often than not the moment will have passed and you’ll not need the biscuit anymore!

TIP #4 – Healthy swaps

There are times when you do feel you need to have a snack or a sweet “pick me up” and that’s okay! It’s good to have a few options available that are low in sugar but are tasty and will hit the spot. Some simple ideas include:

  • A small pot of natural yoghurt with fresh berries
  • Apple slices dunked in peanut butter
  • A small handful of nuts or seeds with a few 70% dark chocolate chunks
  • Some homemade reduced sugar flapjacks

Check out our recipes with the best foods for menopause.

What about foods with artificial sweeteners?

Research into their safety is very mixed but ultimately, artificial sweeteners are chemicals and the body will likely struggle to process and eliminate them. Some research suggests they are linked to increased anxiety, they can encourage weight gain and are linked to degenerative brain disorders, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. If you’d like to read about these research findings see the ‘Learn more’ section at the end of this post.

Both stevia and xylitol are plant-based but are often heavily processed and bleached. If you want to go for a sweetener, I would suggest raw ground stevia leaf which still contains its health benefits without the toxic element.

Sweeteners are called things like:

  • Aspartame
  • Sucralose
  • Saccharin
  • Sorbitol
  • Mannitol
  • Stevia
  • Xylitol

Final word

Sugar is a stress on the body and increased stress can exacerbate perimenopausal symptoms such as hot flushes, fatigue, weight gain and anxiety. All sugar is going to have that impact on your hormones, so it doesn’t matter if you are buying an expensive organic raw manuka honey or a cheap packet of granulated. 

Quitting sugar isn’t easy but understanding which foods it’s hidden in and why you get your cravings is key for kicking the habit and keeping on top of your blood sugar during menopause. Having some healthy swaps will also help you to reduce your overall intake, get you off the sugar rollercoaster and most likely support your perimenopause symptoms.

Read more about menopause on our blog or in our symptoms library.