Menopause, which marks the cessation of menstruation and fertility, is a naturally-occurring phase in every woman's life. In medical terms, a woman is said to have experienced menopause when she has gone 12 months without a menstrual period, which generally occurs between the ages of 45 and 55. For many women, menopause is accompanied by a variety of emotional and physical symptoms. Lifestyle changes, alternative treatments, or prescription medications can help women to navigate this phase of life with relative ease.
Reaching menopause signals the end of fertility, which means that she is no longer able to become pregnant. This is often met with mixed emotions; sexual liberation and freedom from contraception can sometimes be tinged with apprehension, especially if a woman had been planning to become pregnant, or in cases of early menopause. It is advised to consult a physician when the first signs of menopause appear to ensure a proper diagnosis.
About 70% of women will have symptoms of menopause, and while some will experience intense physical and emotional distress, others will only experience mild symptoms. Thankfully, various lifestyle changes and alternative treatments are available to relieve them.
Changes in hormonal production during menopause are part of the normal aging process. Estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone are primarily sex hormones, but they fulfill many other roles within the body, from heart function to bone health. Thus, lowered hormone levels can result in different uncomfortable symptoms.
Most of the time, menopause begins naturally and at around the same age as other female family members experienced the transition. However, it can also be set off by surgery (e.g. hysterectomy or oophorectomy), certain medical conditions, or cancer treatments – especially radiation or chemotherapy. In such cases, symptoms are typically more intense because hormone production ceases abruptly.
The time before and after a woman's final menstrual period is divided into what is commonly known as the three stages of menopause. These stages consist of premenopause, perimenopause, and postmenopause, and each individual woman experiences them at different times and for varying durations. Each stage includes its own distinct hormonal changes and symptoms.
Premenopause refers to a woman's reproductive years. During this time, menstruation follows a more or less regular pattern, and women can become pregnant. Some women experience premenstrual syndrome (PMS) as part of their monthly cycle. Symptoms of PMS include cramps, headaches, mood swings, and bloating, among others.
Perimenopause refers to the immediate time period before a woman reaches menopause, usually around one to two – but anywhere up to 10 – years before a woman's final menstrual cycle. Typically, it is during this stage that symptoms peak and cause the most problems for menopausal women. During perimenopause, there is a strong fluctuation in hormone levels; these fluctuations may present themselves in the form of common menopause symptoms, like mood swings, hot flashes, vaginal dryness, or weight gain.
Perimenopause is usually experienced by women who are between approximately 40 and 50 years old. During this time, periods may become more irregular, and women may notice that they begin to menstruate more or less frequently than usual. After periods have stopped for a year, menopause is deemed to have occurred.
Following menopause, postmenopause occurs. As a rule, a woman is postmenopausal after she has gone 12 months since her final menstrual period. From that point on, a woman is considered postmenopausal for the rest of her life. Natural postmenopause usually begins anywhere from a woman's late 50's, to early 60's, but it may occur earlier as a result of an illness, surgery, or medications.
During postmenopause, a woman's hormone patterns change significantly; the ovaries no longer produce estrogen or progesterone, and they begin to shrink in size. This decreasing production of hormones can result in various health issues. These issues may be minor complications, like urinary tract infections, insomnia, occasional hot flashes, and weight gain, to more serious concerns, including osteoporosis and heart disease. Postmenopause plays an increasingly significant role in Western society, because with an average life expectancy of over 80 years, many women are spending over one third of their lives in this stage.
Early menopause is not a menopausal stage, it is the occurrence of menopause before age 40. It thought that about 10% of the female population experience early menopause. It may begin as early as a woman's 20's, and often comes as a shock. Early menopause can be caused by genetics, certain medical treatments, illnesses, or surgery. Symptoms experienced are the same as for women who begin menopause later on in life, though sometimes more intense.
Women who think they have reached early menopause should consult their doctors, who can perform tests to ensure that a woman is indeed experiencing early menopause, and that her symptoms are not the sign of another medical condition.
It is recommended that women begin with the least invasive form of menopause treatments: lifestyle changes. Eating a healthy diet – including fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and essential vitamins and minerals – can go a long way in providing relief for menopause symptoms. Regularly exercising for 30 minutes a day, five days a week will help to decrease the frequency and severity of symptoms and also lower the risk of future health complications arising.
Alternative treatments may also be helpful to incorporate into the daily routine. Phytoestrogenic herbs and supplements introduce plant-based estrogens into the body, and can be used to correct hormonal imbalance. However, these herbs are not recommended for long-term use, because they may actually inhibit the body's natural hormones. On the other hand, hormone-regulating herbs and supplements do not contain any estrogen, but rather nourish the body's endocrine system to encourage the body to produce its own hormones in a safe and natural way, and are thus an optimum treatment option.
For women who do not experience relief from lifestyle changes or alternative treatments, prescription medications should be considered as a last resort. Before beginning any method of treatment, women should consult their doctors for a proper diagnosis and personalized advice.
Menopause can cause many physical and psychological symptoms. Here is a list of menopause symptoms:
Other symptoms of menopause include: anxiety, irritability, panic disorder, breast pain, headaches, joint pain, burning tongue, electric shocks, digestive problems, gum problems, muscle tension, itchy skin, tingling extremities, and osteoporosis.