For many women, menopause signals a time of tumultuous changes in the body. Hot flashes, mood changes, and weight gain are just some of the signs of menopause that a woman can experience. Knowing what to expect, however, can make the transition into menopause easier to manage and find relief for.
What Is Menopause?
Menopause signifies the end a woman’s menstrual cycles. When a woman does not experience a menstrual cycle for one year, meaning she has no bleeding or spotting for 12 months in a row, she has started menopause.
For most women, this happens in your early 50s. The average menopause age is 51. In some rare instances, women experience premature menopause before their 40s.
Signs of Menopause
Menopause doesn’t just mean the end of menstrual cycles or the lack of a woman’s capability to get pregnant. During menopause, the ovaries make very low levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone.
These lowered hormone levels can lead to many menopause symptoms, in addition to increasing the risk of certain health conditions. Signs of menopause begin in the months or years leading up to menopause (perimenopause), and include:
- Irregular periods
- Hot flashes
- Mood changes
- Problems sleeping
- Weight gain and slowed metabolism
- Dry skin
- Thinning hair
- Loss of breast fullness
On average, most women experience perimenopause for about four years before their menstrual cycles completely end. Signs of menopause can come on abruptly or be very mild.
If you’re unsure whether you’re beginning menopause or not, you can discuss any symptoms you may be experiencing with your doctor or take a hormone test to check your estrogen and progesterone levels.
Causes of Menopause
Menopause is a natural transition for women to experience. The same way in which women experience the beginning of menstrual cycles with puberty, they are also meant to experience an end with menopause.
That said, certain factors can push up the timeline in which a woman experiences menopause. Some of these factors include:
While a hysterectomy, which is the removal of the uterus, causes a woman not to have periods anymore, it doesn’t keep the ovaries from producing hormones and eggs. However, if a complete hysterectomy with removal of the ovaries were to occur, then a woman would definitely experience immediate menopause and the symptoms that go along with that.
Chemotherapy or Radiation
Chemotherapy or radiation can cause symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes, following treatment. Sometimes the symptoms are permanent, while other times they’re not and a woman remains fertile.
Primary Ovarian Insufficiency
About 1% of women experience early menopause, in which they experience menopause before their 40s. The inability of the ovaries to produce normal levels of reproductive hormones is what causes the early menopause; it can be triggered by genetic factors, autoimmune diseases, or no known cause at all.
These women are often suggested to seek hormone therapy to protect themselves from possible health risks that result from the lack of normal hormone levels.
Complications of Menopause
It’s important to stay in touch with your doctor during the transition to menopause as there are certain health complications that can arise from the lowered hormone levels. When a woman experiences lowered estrogen and progesterone levels, there is a greater risk for:
When estrogen levels are low, there’s a higher chance of getting cardiovascular disease. It’s important to talk with your doctor about protecting your heart and maintaining normal blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Many women experience a major loss in bone density following menopause, causing the bones to become brittle and weak. This increases the risk for fractures, making women susceptible to hurting their wrists, hips, and spines.
A loss of elasticity is normal after menopause, and this loss can also occur in the tissues of the vagina and urethra. When this happens, women often experience a frequent urge to urinate or involuntary loss of urine.
As the metabolism slows down during menopause, women often experience weight gain. Most women will need to adjust their dietary habits by eating less, in addition to exercising more.
Treatment and Relief of Menopause
There is no particular medical treatment for menopause, as it’s not so much a disease as it is a natural condition that women experience at some point in their life. Instead, there are a variety of approaches taken to relieve some of the symptoms of menopause and prevent health complications that result from menopause.
Some of the treatments used to manage menopause and bring relief include:
- Hormone therapy to normalize hormone levels in the body
- Avoiding hot flash triggers like hot weather, spicy foods, hot beverages, etc.
- Getting enough sleep and avoiding too much caffeine
- Kegel exercises (strengthening pelvic floor muscles) for urinary incontinence
- Eating a balanced diet and getting enough exercise
- Avoiding smoking or drinking too much alcohol
- Meditation techniques and yoga
- Herbal remedies like black cohosh and sage
Before you attempt any of these treatments or remedies, make sure you talk to your doctor and discuss the best option for your particular health profile. If you are having trouble sleeping due to hot flashes, for instance, it may be worth exploring medication or hormone therapy with your doctor to ensure you can sleep well.