Menopause: Identifying Symptoms
The “change of life” is an experience that all women will face as they reach a certain age. Menopause marks the transition from the reproductive and child rearing years to a more time more focused on personal and intellectual growth.
Unfortunately, menopause is often seen as less of a chance for growth and renewal and more of an uncomfortable reminder of the aging process. A healthier menopause experience starts with a better understanding of the process.
What is Menopause?
Menopause is a natural and biological transition that occurs for all women as they age. It marks the end of a woman’s fertile period.
Hormone level shifts are at the heart of the menopause process. Estrogen and progesterone begin to diminish which leads to fewer or more irregular periods. After menopause, you can no longer become pregnant as the ovaries stop releasing eggs and the uterus stops preparing its lining for a pregnancy.
Menopause is considered an important change in a woman’s life as she enters a new phase. During this time, it is important to maintain good habits and keep your health in check. While many women dread this transition, there is much to be learned and even enjoyed through the menopause experience.
What is the Menopause Age?
You are officially in menopause after one full year without a menstrual period. The average age for entering menopause is 52 for American women, but any age between 45 and 58 is considered normal.
There are a few factors that can impact when your body enters menopause.
Family history: Many women are likely to follow in their mother’s footsteps and go through menopause around the same age.
Number of Children: Those who never had children are likely to start menopause earlier than women who had children, especially those who had multiple pregnancies.
Smoking: Women who smoke are also more likely to start menopause an average of two years earlier than those who do not.
Body Mass Index: Since estrogen is stored in fat, those with a low body mass index (BMI) tend to start menopause sooner due to less fat stores, and therefore less estrogen. A vegetarian diet also corresponds to earlier menopause.
Sedentary Lifestyle: Those who have sedentary lives and do not exercise tend to experience menopause sooner.
Cancer or Reproductive Illness: Premature menopause occurs when a woman shifts into menopause before age 40. This is a common occurrence in women who underwent chemotherapy or had surgery to remove the ovaries.
What is Perimenopause?
The transition into menopause is rarely cut and dry. Many women experience changes in their cycles, emotional state, and health as they approach menopause. This transition is called “perimenopause.”
In perimenopause, the hormones begin to shift and the menstrual period becomes more irregular. You may notice shorter or longer cycles, have heavier or lighter periods than before, or skip a period. Some women notice different bleeding patterns, spotting, dryness, or fluctuations in mood. Other “menopausal” symptoms like hot flashes or night sweats may start to develop during this time due to the fluctuations in estrogen and progesterone.
Signs and Symptoms of Menopause
While there are some hallmark signs of menopause, this transition unfolds differently for each woman and the shift occurs over time.
Common menopause symptoms include:
- Brain fog
- Changes in libido
- Depression and anxiety
- Excess bleeding
- Fever or sweating
- Generalized pain
- Hair loss
- Irritability, rage, anger
- Joint pain
- Mood swings
- Nausea and bloating
- Rash or skin dryness
- Slow metabolism, weight gain
- Vaginal discharge or odors
- Vaginal pain or dryness
- Vertigo and dizziness
- Yeast infections and vaginal itching
The Most Common Menopausal Symptoms
Hot Flashes in Menopause: Up to 75% of women in perimenopause and menopause report experiencing hot flashes. Mild hot flashes are a normal part of menopause, but for some women they can become debilitating. These sudden, intense feeling of heat and overwhelm can occur at any time and can bring with them feelings of nausea, anxiety, irritability, and discomfort.
Night Sweats with Menopause: Night sweats occur when the body’s temperature drastically raises at night, resulting in a drenched sweat to release this excess heat. Night sweats are not only inconvenient, they wreak havoc on sleep quality. Poor sleep can lead to even more severe hormone imbalances, stress, and a worsening of other symptoms.
Menopause and Weight Gain: As we age, our metabolism begins to slow. This is due to a slow decline in our natural energy as well as hormone imbalances. For the menopausal woman, this is a recipe for weight gain, excess belly fat, and fatigue.
Mood Swings from Menopause: Mood shifts are a natural symptom of fluctuating hormone levels, especially during menopause. These mood shifts can cause new or worsening anxiety, irritability, anger, and even rage. Some women may experience a lack of motivation, depression, or feel like they are emotionally numb.
Should You Use a Menopause Test Kit?
If you are unsure whether your new symptoms are due to menopause or a different health concern, you might consider using a menopause test kit.
The menopause test kit offers an at-home test to help you determine if you are in or nearing menopause. We have a complex hormonal system that guides the body through all of our developmental processes. Because of this system, we can use the presence of hormones to learn more about our body’s stage in life.
These kits test the urine for the presence of follicle-stimulating hormone, or FSH. FSH is the hormone that directs the ovaries to develop a follicle that will become an egg. In menopause, this level is expected to be high as the ovaries are less responsive than they were in our younger years.
Unfortunately, menopausal test kits are not completely reliable. The levels of FSH can fluctuate widely when a woman experiences irregular periods and may not correlate with the actual changes happening in the body.
The most important and reliable way to determine if you are in menopause is by listening to your body. If you are nearing 12 months without a period or are experiencing extreme menopause symptoms, this is a better indicator of how your body is adjusting than a hormone test. Your doctor can help you understand your symptoms and determine the best treatment plan for you.
For some, the symptoms of menopause require additional care and treatment. These are the most common menopausal treatments available:
Hormone therapy is a commonly prescribed treatment for women with severe hot flashes. Estrogen and progestin are supplemented to help your body’s hormones find a more stable balance. Estrogen can help protect against rapid bone loss during menopause, there are some potential cardiovascular risks for some patients. Discuss with your doctor if hormone therapy is right for you.
For women who experience vaginal dryness and painful intercourse, a vaginal estrogen supplement can help to reduce pain and dryness. Estrogen is delivered via a cream, tablet, or ring directly to the vagina to help nourish the area directly to the effected tissues.
In addition to hormone therapy, other medications have been used to address the symptoms of menopause. Low dose antidepressants have shown to reduce hot flashes and ease signs of mood changes.
Vitamin D is a key vitamin for preventing bone loss and maintaining overall health. Some doctors prescribe a vitamin D supplement to support women who may suffer from osteoporosis or to prevent potential fractures.
Menopause has a wide range of symptoms that can be helped with the use of holistic therapies. Acupuncture is often used to help balance hormones and address hot flashes, mood swings, and insomnia. Nutritional therapy can be helpful to promote a heart and bone healthy diet for women going through menopause.
Managing Your Health During Menopause
The transition into menopause does not have to be stressful or uncomfortable. With proper preparation, self-care techniques, and a focus on health, you may find this to be one of life’s most rewarding transitions.
As with any life transition, however, there are some key steps to take to encourage a healthy outcome.
Mental Health and Menopause
Menopause is often an emotional time for women. Hormone fluctuations can cause mood swings while common life events at this age may contribute to emotional strain (the death of loved ones, finances, aged parents, marital issues, and more). As the body changes, you may find yourself more susceptible to stress than before. This is a crucial time to dedicate extra attention to your mental health. Set aside a portion of each day for your own self-care. Meditate, journal, or enjoy your hobbies daily. Many women find that mindfulness practices can be helpful in navigating their bodies’ changes and reducing their stress.
Sleep and Menopause
Night sweats, anxiety, and pain are keeping you up at night, it’s time to take action. Sleep is incredibly important for maintaining health at any stage of life. During menopause, our bodies’ need all the quality sleep they can get to keep hormones balanced. If you suffer from insomnia or sleep disturbance, consider making a few adjustments to your nighttime routine, bedroom environment, or daily activities to ensure a good night’s sleep.
Bone Loss in Menopause
After menopause, women are more likely to develop issues with bone health like osteoporosis. As estrogen falls, bone density also diminishes, leaving the bones less stable and at higher risk for a break or fracture. Prevent osteoporosis with a healthy diet, Vitamin D supplements, and moderate exercise to strengthen your bones and joints.
Lower estrogen levels are also tied to an increased possibility of heart disease and stroke. To reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, maintain your heart health with a nutritious diet and exercise and by limiting risky behaviors such as smoking and excessive drinking.
Sex & Menopause
During and after menopause, many women experience changes in their sexual lives. You may notice you have less interest in sex or your libido has dramatically decreased. You may have difficulty getting aroused or experience dryness which can lead to painful intercourse. While these are normal shifts, there are many ways you can naturally boost your libido and enhance your sexual health after menopause and beyond.
Menopause: A Beautiful Transition
Menopause is a complex biological transition that is a natural part of the aging process. From hormone fluctuations to body changes and even shifts in attitude and beliefs, menopause can be the mark of a new body – and a new era for each woman. What may seem simply biological has the deeper power to offer a woman a fresh start, renewal, and a new sense of self.