It’s time we had a little chat about the “M” word (no, I don’t mean “men”). Let’s talk about menopause (gasp!). Why is this a taboo subject? We deny it. We ignore it. We treat it like the white elephant in the room, and we tip toe around it. I was born in 1964, along with roughly 2,000,000 other women here in the United States. It is probable that we are all in the throes of menopause, but mum’s the word. Never have so many women held such a well-guarded secret! And why?! That’s just silly. I, for one, look forward to being able to say, “I’m done, what’s next?” But first, I needed to figure out what I might expect during this “change.”
Since my mother passed away before she reached this milestone, I had to consult with my physician and, of course, “Dr. Google.” There are a few universal signs and symptoms experienced by many women, but these may vary based on the individual.
Most women begin in their 40s and 50s – the national average age is 51. The process is broken into three stages: Perimenopause, Menopause, and Postmenopause.
Perimenopause (or transition menopause), is often the longest phase. It can last between 10 months and four years. During this time a woman’s body produces less and less estrogen. Because of this, many women experience the following symptoms:
- Hot flashes, night sweats and/or cold flashes
- Vaginal dryness; discomfort during sex
- Urinary urgency
- Delayed or disrupted sleep
- Irritability, mood swings, mild depression
- Dry skin, eyes or mouth
- Breast tenderness
- Worsening of premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
- Irregular periods or missed periods
- Bleeding that is heavier or lighter than usual
They might also experience:
- Racing heart
- Joint and muscle aches and pains
- Diminished sex drive
- Difficulty concentrating, temporary memory lapses
- Weight gain
- Hair loss or thinning
Because women are still having periods, they can still get pregnant during this time. It’s unlikely that you will experience all of these symptoms, but do keep your doctor informed. Some of these symptoms may be signs of something else (for example, racing heart, urinary changes or headaches).
Menopause officially begins after a woman misses her period for 12 consecutive months. At this point, the body has stopped releasing eggs. Estrogen production is decreasing.
Postmenopause is the final phase and includes the years after menopause. Most symptoms will have ceased by or before the fifth year following menopause.
It’s important to note that with decreasing estrogen production, some women may be at risk for other health conditions, including osteoporosis and heart disease. Talk to your doctor if your family has a history of these. Ask him or her about healthy lifestyle changes that might reduce the risk of these conditions.
Even though it doesn’t sound like a lot of fun, there are some things we can do to ease some of the discomfort.
- Night sweats – Avoid sugar and alcohol at least 4 hours before bed. These tend to ramp up the body’s thermogenics. Sleep in little or nothing at all, and invest in a good oscillating fan.
- Bladder urgency, muscle and joint pain, temporary weight gain (usually in the tummy) and stress – Practice yoga stretching (20 minutes) and walking (30 minutes) daily. These activities will help to loosen up joints and strengthen core muscles and, as a daily routine, is a highly effective way to manage temporary weight gain and stress levels.
And here is some even better news! Some women will not experience any symptoms during menopause. It’s true! There is a great deal of evidence that one’s attitude about aging is directly related to one’s level of discomfort. Most of these studies are culturally based. For example, in the US and the UK, aging for women is stigmatized. These women suffer more symptoms than in countries that revere aging women. None were reported in China where menopause is a time for rejoicing. It is called a “Second Spring.” In Greece, women rarely report discomfort. Aging women are held in higher esteem in their culture, much like their Goddess “Gerontissa” or “the Eldress.” So in the end, the signs, symptoms, and strategies are good information, but I think I would rather celebrate my Second Spring. Just call me Gerontissa!