Menopause is nature’s way of saying your menstrual cycles are over, a diagnosis typically given after 12 months without menstruating. During this time, a woman’s reproductive hormones gradually decrease. In the United States, women experience menopause at an average age of 51 years old. However, some women also experience the symptoms in their 40s. It’s essential to know the signs and symptoms of menopause so that you can speak with your doctor about possible treatments that offer relief.
While this is an expected and natural process, menopause may be caused by surgery on the ovaries, chemotherapy or radiation therapy treatments, or an insufficient presence of reproductive hormones. This insufficiency is known as premature menopause and, though rare (around 1% of women), may appear in women under 40 years old.1 Premature menopause signs are common to those of regular menopause; however, if an indication of insufficient hormones, a doctor visit may be required to protect the patient’s bones, brain, and heart.1 For example, women who received an oophorectomy—the surgical removal of the ovaries—may immediately experience symptoms of menopause because of the sudden decrease in estrogen.
What are the Stages of Menopause and Their Symptoms?
Many women will experience these symptoms throughout menopause, but some symptoms are more common during certain stages. Let’s go over the stages of menopause and what you should expect during each one.
Perimenopause is the transition period into menopause and may begin as early as 8 or 10 years before menopause. The most common perimenopause symptom is irregular periods, which may be spotty, heavy, or disappear for several months before occurring again. However, you may also experience more painful cramps, breast tenderness, and other period symptoms.
Menopause is diagnosed once a woman does not have periods for a full year. You may experience a wide variety of symptoms, including mood swings, hot flashes, and vaginal dryness, in addition to the other symptoms discussed throughout.
Post-menopause is the remaining period after menopause, which is signaled by a lack of periods for 12 months. During this time, women are more at risk for heart disease and osteoporosis and experiencing several other symptoms.
Potential Complications Associated with Menopause
Many women experience menopause without any serious complications, but some may experience side effects apart from those listed above.1 Estrogen levels, which decrease during menopause, are tied to more than women’s reproductive cycles.
The drop in estrogen levels is associated with increased harmful cholesterol or LDL cholesterol and a decrease in beneficial cholesterol, or HRT cholesterol. Because of this shift, women experiencing menopause are more at risk for high cholesterol and high blood pressure, which increases the possibility of heart disease.
Estrogen has been proven to directly relate to bone density, including how bones heal and form. In addition to bone formation, estrogen also regulates how calcium is transferred from bone into the bloodstream, all affected by menopause. As estrogen levels decrease during menopause, the risk of osteoporosis gradually increases.
One of the more unfortunate signs of menopause many women experience is weight gain around the abdomen and thigh regions. This is partly due to menopause, as a decrease in reproductive hormones leads to an increase in weight. However, since menopause typically occurs for women in their 40s and 50s, this weight gain is also caused by a lower metabolism.
Decrease in Sexual Function
These levels influence women’s risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, and weight gain, but they also affect the vagina’s moisture and elasticity. This may lead to vaginal dryness, which may cause light bleeding and discomfort during sexual intercourse. Because of this discomfort and the loss of sensitivity in the vagina, many women experience decreased sexual desire and activity. However, your doctor may offer some treatment options that can help with this.
In addition to sexual function, this change in vagina elasticity and moisture may also lead to issues with bladder control, including urge incontinence, stress incontinence, painful urination, and nocturia. Urge incontinence is the loss of urine involuntarily, and stress incontinence occurs when coughing, lifting, or laughing leads to the involuntary loss of urine. These are quite common menopause symptoms; however, women may also experience painful urination—experiencing discomfort while urinating—and nocturia—the frequent sensation of needing to urinate at night.
Emotional Symptoms Related to Menopause
With all of these symptoms, it’s no surprise that many women experience emotional swings and changes. Night sweats or chills combined with bladder control issues may lead to difficulty sleeping. Some women experience foggy-headedness, confusion, or minor lapses in memory during menopause as well. Other symptoms may include:
- Decrease in motivation or energy
- General mood changes, especially depression and anxiety
- Irritability and aggression
However, many of the emotional signs of menopause may also be felt outside of menopause or perimenopause. It’s important to talk to your doctor if you’re experiencing these emotions more frequently.
What the Body Does During Menopause
As your body ages, it will naturally stop having as many periods or menstrual cycles as usual. The perimenopause phase occurs before you hit menopause and can happen up to ten years before menopause. This is when estrogen begins to drop in the body, which is the primary hormone produced in the ovaries. In the perimenopause phase, you may miss occasional periods or have other changes in your cycle. It is still possible to get pregnant during this phase, and it can last for up to four years. In the menopause phase, your cycle will completely stop, and your body will no longer produce eggs and will not ovulate, resulting in lower levels of estrogen and progesterone.
Menopause Symptoms and Effects
Although it may be a pleasant change to no longer have your monthly cycle, there are other symptoms that menopause can produce that can negatively affect your daily life. Every woman is different and will have different experiences. Some tend to not notice much during this stage of their life, while others struggle with symptom management. Below are the most common symptoms:
Since the body is changing hormone production, many females find themselves going through mood changes. This can include increased irritability, agitation, anxiety, exhaustion, and feeling positive one day and the opposite the following day. Menopause can also trigger depression, so if you feel as though you have been down for an extended amount of time, talk to your physician.
Also referred to as hot flashes, these are instigated by the drop in estrogen. You may find yourself getting hot and uncomfortable quickly during the night. This typically affects the upper half of the body and can even change the color of your skin, as though you had a rash. This is a common symptom, with about 75 percent of women experiencing it, and may affect your sleep.
Incontinence is when the body has difficulty controlling when it needs to use the bathroom to excrete fluids. This may mean that the body will drip out urine, or you may feel the need to use the bathroom much more urgently than normal.
Since the body is no longer creating the same levels of hormones to prepare for a cycle, you will notice that fluids are not being generated the same way. There will be no cervical mucus that typically comes with ovulation. For some women, this results in dryness, which can be uncomfortable.
With menopause, the body will no longer be as dense as before, putting women at risk for osteoporosis. The change in estrogen can affect the calcium that is used to strengthen the bones. This may also mean you lose muscle mass more quickly, and your joints may feel less limber than before.
Some other symptoms you may experience include:
- Sexual discomfort
- Trouble sleeping
- Weight gain
If you are experiencing intense menopause symptoms, there are things you can do to manage them. While it is sometimes an uncomfortable experience, many have traveled this path before and have found ways to make them less intense.
If you have had unstable moods, finding out which relaxation techniques work best for you can be critical for achieving a higher quality of life. Some ideas for techniques include self-care strategies like going out and getting a massage, coloring, painting, deep breathing, or meditation.
Exercising is a good strategy for helping balance out the body’s hormones. It can also help you sleep better at night and keep stress at bay. If your body is achy or feels weak, you can try low-impact activities like yoga, which can also increase mindfulness.
If sleep continues to be an issue, try to avoid any highly acidic foods or caffeinated beverages before sleeping. You can also try to drink teas that are known to relax the body, such as chamomile or lavender, which can be found at most grocery stores. Milk and peanuts have also been known to aid with sleep, as they contain the ingredient tryptophan.
Lubricants or Moisturizers
If you find that you are dry, there are plenty of over-the-counter lubricants you can use to be more comfortable. This can help during intercourse. This helps the body maintain moisture and can help with the elasticity of the vagina, which often changes during menopause. This also helps with the pH levels of the vagina, which is great for female health.
Kegel exercises are vaginal exercises that improve muscles. If you find you are having issues with urinary incontinence, this may be a great option for you. There are many you can find online, or you can speak to your physician about how to strengthen muscles that target your pelvic floor.
Some others may need prescriptions to help manage symptoms. This may be the case if you find your anxiety or depression is getting intense, if your sleep habits are unmanageable, or if you are experiencing intense amounts of pain. If you feel you are having a difficult time with menopause, speak to your doctor about ways to minimize your symptoms. Nore Women’s Health can help you in your menopause journey with our team of specialists and staff who focus on women’s reproductive health and wellness. To schedule your appointment, or inquire about services, contact us today!