By definition, a woman reaches menopause when she has not had her period for at least 12 consecutive months, and can no longer conceive. The process leading up to menopause can last a few years. This process is the body’s progressive decline in producing reproductive hormones. This is most welcome for some, dreaded by others and the symptoms can feel overwhelming at times.
The typical menopausal symptoms are caused by the fall of estrogen and progesterone levels, especially if they fall precipitously or out of sync with each other.
How do I know? What are the signs?
Usually, the first sign that you are approaching menopause is when you experience changes in your periods. Some women find their periods can either come more or less often, more or less heavily, or all together erratically. Basically, it is safer to be prepared at all times.
Another telltale sign of menopause is the heat factor. If you suddenly feel like someone cranked up the heat and that you should be wearing a sundress while everyone else is in wool pants and sweaters, then you are experiencing a hot flash.
When does menopause start?
The average age for entering menopause is 52, but many women start noticing symptoms such as disturbances to their previously regular menstrual cycle in their mid to late 40s, and others don’t notice anything until later in their 50s.
You have officially reached menopause once you have not had your period for a full year.
How long does menopause last?
From experiencing the first hot flash or the first few period mishaps, to skipping a month or two regularly, to finally reach a full year without your period, you can count an average of 5 to 8 years.
Here is how it goes: there is peri-menopause, menopause and post-menopause.
First, there is peri-menopause:
This is when the production of reproductive hormones is slowing down and your periods act-up and you may experience your first few hot flashes. In the last one to two years of peri-menopause, the decline in estrogen accelerates and symptoms increase in intensity and diversity. On average, this starts happening around age 45 and lasts anywhere between 2 and 7 years.
Other symptoms than hot flashes and erratic periods are frequent but they can also be caused by many other factors, including stress. Before assuming that you are having menopausal symptoms, you should consult your doctor.
After not having a period in twelve consecutive months, you may have officially reached the next stage; menopause. Your doctor can confirm this by testing hormone levels.
On the up side, it’s nice not having to deal with monthly periods. Also, over are the days of heavy bleeding, menstrual pain and PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome). For some, that is a big relief.
You can probably stop birth control however you should check with your doctor first.
Final stage: post-menopause. The post-menopausal years are those following one-year duration of no menstruation. On average, this stage starts around age 55. The transition is over, but you should adapt your lifestyle to the new you.
Possible symptoms are diverse and looking at the list can be overwhelming. However, we are talking for everyone here and thankfully, not every woman experiences all of them.
Here goes the list: aches and pains, low libido, thinning hair, changes in skin condition, vaginal dryness, breast tenderness, disturbed sleep patterns (often due to night sweats), fatigue, low mood, emotional fragility (e.g. crying for no apparent reason), urinary urgency and memory lapses.
The 3 symptoms that are bothersome to most are the hot flashes, night sweats and weight gain.
So what exactly is a hot flash? It is a momentary feeling of intense heat accompanied by sweating and rapid heartbeat. It will typically last around 2 minutes but for some, it can last longer. Sometimes, your face and neck are flushed and red rendering this symptom quite visible to others. The sweats can literally leave you drenched in perspiration. Hot flashes are typically a sign of low estrogen
They are merely a night-time manifestation of hot flashes and sweating experienced during the day. But because night sweats occur while you are sleeping or unable to take ‘evasive action’, they make themselves more noticed. You may wake frequently with your bedclothes drenched in sweat. Night sweats can disturb your sleep and that of your partner.
Why is it that menopause is linked to weight gain? It is probably a combination of factors that have to do with both menopause and aging. Is there hope? Definitely.
Changes in hormone levels do influence body weight. Getting older often means a natural reduction in physical activity, so menopause will not be the only reason for weight gain.
With age, your muscle mass decreases, leading to a lower basal metabolic rate (BMR). BMR is the amount of energy that we would expand in a day while doing nothing, to keep vital functions going, such as breathing and keeping warm. If the BMR is lower but the diet stays the same, the calories that you were using when you were younger are now stored into fat tissue.
An adjustment in your diet is needed to adjust to your body’s changing needs. It is a good idea to increase proteins in the diet to slow down the loss of muscle mass.
It is important to remain active. Exercise has a direct impact on your BMR and calories are burned throughout the day, not just while you are exercising. Studies have shown that women who exercise 20 to 30 minutes per day (by walking, running, etc.) do not gain weight after menopause.
After menopause, women – some more than others – are at higher risk of suffering from osteoporosis. Osteoporosis (meaning “porous bone”) is a disease that weakens bones, therefore increasing the risk of fractures. The World Health Organization (WHO) put together a test to evaluate your risk level. This test is readily available online: http://www.shef.ac.uk/FRAX/tool.aspx?country=19
Staying active, not smoking and a healthy diet is the best way to prevent osteoporosis.
There are 3 types of treatments doctors usually prescribe to treat problems associated with menopause.
- General hormonal treatment, also known as hormone therapy (HT). This treatment is a temporary (no more than 5 years) substitution of hormones that are no longer produced by ovaries. It reduces or even stops menopausal symptoms, while treatment lasts. However, as menopause is a normal transition, symptoms do come back at the end of therapy. It is usually prescribed to women whose quality of life is greatly affected by their symptoms.
- Local hormonal treatment. Local treatment in the form of small doses of estrogens is applied by cream in the vagina, ring or tablet. It relieves symptoms associated with sexual function such as vaginal dryness but has no effect on hot flashes, mood or sleep problems.
- Non-hormonal treatment. This is a more symptomatic approach. Depending on which symptom of menopause is most detrimental to someone, medication is given to soothe that particular problem.
This is probably the most influential of treatments.
Manage your stress. Stress has a huge influence and can make symptoms much worse. Why? Because the adrenal glands produce adrenalin in response to physical or emotional stress. But they are also in charge of producing hormones to brace for the falling levels of estrogen and progesterone. If your adrenals are busy coping with stress, they won’t have the resources to create these back-up hormones.
Sport has multiple benefits. It reduces stress, promotes a healthy weight, prevents osteoporosis and it is good for the mind too! It releases natural chemicals in the body that make us feel happy. From walking, to swimming, kickboxing, tai chi, yoga and dancing…the choice is yours and it’s FUN!
Diet adjustments: A well adjusted diet is key: Love fresh fruits and vegetables!
You should drink lots of water and less hot drinks such as tea and coffee. Eat more phytoestrogenic foods and calcium-rich foods. Tofu is a great choice to also increase protein intake and therefore your muscle mass.
Sex. Some studies associate an active sex life to less menopausal symptoms. What is not clear is whether more sex actually reduces symptoms or if it is coincidence.
Natural remedies for menopause
There are many natural remedies that can help cope with the symptoms of menopause. There are herbs that will help with symptoms, and the ones that can help with stress management.
During peri-menopause, when your cycle is erratic, one of the most effective plants is Vitex, because it helps balance levels of estrogen and progesterone in the body.
For hot flashes and night sweats, Sage is a clinically proven solution. It reduces not only the number of hot flashes but also their intensity. The interesting thing is that the more intense and frequent the hot flashes, the more effective Sage is! Clinical evidence shows that very severe hot flashes completely disappear while mild, moderate and severe hot flashes are reduced by: 46%, 62% and 79%.
If night sweats and anxiety is keeping you up at night, Deep Sleep may be a solution for you. It is a combination of Valerian and Hops, clinically proven to improve sleep quality and keep you in a deep restful sleep for longer periods. The best part is that you will not feel groggy in the morning and it is non-addictive.
Osteoporosis is a big worry after menopause so using Calcium Absorber to protect your bones is a good bet. It will help prevent calcium deficiency and keep your bones nice and strong.