Menopause signals the end of a woman’s menstruation years. It is a natural part of the aging process and the change is gradual and takes place over many years. A woman can no longer bear children once she has reached menopause. Menopause can begin anytime between the ages of 45 and 55. However, some women may begin as early as 35 and some as late as 60. A woman can be certain she has reached menopause if she has not had a period for one year.
The word menopause is derived from Greek in which ‘mens’ means monthly and ‘pausis’ means cessation.
Stages of Menopause
Menopause has three stages. The first stage or the transitional phase is known as perimenopause and takes place over several years. The periods start becoming irregular. The gap between periods may increase or decrease. Some menopausal symptoms may occur during this period.
The second stage is called menopause. This occurs when a woman has not had a period for twelve months. When a woman has not had a period for twelve months she has entered the menopausal stage of her life. There are usually definite symptoms like headaches, mood swings, hot flashes and irritability during this stage.
The third stage is called postmenopause. By this stage the symptoms associated with menopause should begin to decline and eventually disappear altogether. However this stage is associated with the danger of other problems such as cardiac problems, osteoporosis and urinary tract infections.
Preparing for menopause
The important thing to bear in mind is that menopause is an inevitable and natural part of the aging process. To be prepared when the time comes it is a good idea to learn as much as possible about the process of menopause from books and articles and from other women’s experiences. Joining a support group and discussing your fears and other problems is also a good idea. It is important to eat well balanced meals and to exercise regularly. Avoid stress and try to lead a regular routine life.
Causes of Menopause
Menopause is a biological process that takes place gradually in a woman’s body as a result of the slowing down of the production of the two female sex hormones, estrogen and progesterone. Sometimes menopause occurs when the ovaries get damaged due to drugs or other causes or when the ovaries are surgically removed.
Signs and Symptoms
Menopause is different for every woman. Every woman may not have all the symptoms that are associated with menopause. The good news is that most of the symptoms do not last forever. Some of the common symptoms are:
- hot flashes
- vaginal dryness and urinary tract infections
- mood swings
- an increase in weight
Other symptoms include breaking into a sweat at night, pain in the joints, forgetfulness, fatigue, dry eyes and itchy skin.
This is the most dreaded and most commonly heard of symptom associated with menopause. Hot flashes are described by women as intense flashes of heat that course through the upper body. They can last from five seconds to thirty minutes and can be triggered off by heat, spicy food, alcohol, caffeine and stress. They usually occur about two to four hours apart. They can occur at anytime of the day or night. If they occur at night they are referred to as night sweats. A woman may not get enough sleep if she suffers from night sweats and may wake up tired and irritable.
With menopause certain changes occur in the vagina. The decrease in the levels of estrogen causes the blood flow to decrease in the pelvic area causing the vaginal lining to become thinner and less elastic. A certain amount of vaginal dryness may also be experienced. This leads to discomfort, pain and sometimes bleeding during intercourse. Using a lubricant can help make sexual intercourse more enjoyable.
Vaginal dryness also causes women to become more susceptible to urinary tract and vaginal infections after menopause. To deal with persistent vaginal dryness there are various oral, topical, transdermal, and tablet forms of medication available.
Mood swings are a common symptom of menopause. Women find that they become more emotional and irritable when they enter their menopausal years. The smallest thing can cause a woman to burst into tears or to lose her temper. This is due to the fluctuating levels of hormones in the body. These hormones can cause an increase or a decrease in the serotonin levels of the brain. Serotonin is a chemical which controls that part of the brain that affects our moods.
Eating the right kinds of foods also help as they boost up the amount of serotonin in the brain and help a woman feel more energetic and happier. Foods such as peas, beans and milk have been found to raise serotonin levels.
Sometimes mood swings can result in severe depression. Between 8 to 15 % women experience some form of depression while going through menopause. Some women go through feelings of intense sadness and hopelessness. This is more likely to happen to women who suffer from a history of depression.
Depression should not be ignored. A woman who feels she may be severely depressed should seek help to deal with it. There are several ways to deal with depression.
Getting help from an experienced psychiatrist is a good way to deal with depression. Joining a support group may help some women.
There are several antidepressants available in the market. They boost the mood and bring about a feeling of well being and happiness.
A new therapy suggests that estrogen supplements may help to overcome depression. This is based on the theory that depression is a result of the depleted supply of estrogen in the body.
Incontinence means the involuntary loss of urine from the body. The decreased levels of estrogen cause the walls of the vagina to become weak. The pelvic muscles also become weak. This makes it difficult to prevent urine from escaping. Other symptoms of incontinence may include the urge to visit the bathroom frequently and the feeling of bladder fullness. The problem can be annoying and embarrassing. Approximately 40% of women going through menopause suffer from this symptom.
Many women hesitate to seek help for the problem of incontinence. However, there are a variety of treatments available today to deal with the problem.
- Incontinence pads are available in the market and can help to avoid embarrassing incidents
- Kegel exercises help to strengthen the pelvic muscles. These should be done three or four times a day. These are done by lying on the floor with the legs apart and feet on the floor and contracting the pelvic muscles for a few seconds.
- Encourage your bladder to hold urine by not satisfying the urge to visit the bathroom immediately. Allow a delay for a few minutes and as you get used to this increase the period of delay.
If the problem is severe and none of these treatments work the doctor may suggest various treatments like using pessaries, bladder swings or perhaps even surgery.
Another symptom associated with menopause is weight gain, most noticeably in the stomach area. The abdominal area becomes rounder. This is normal and is caused by changes in the hormone levels. Some women gain weight rapidly, others more slowly. This weight gain is often referred to as the middle aged spread.
The bright side is that the weight gain may help to reduce the other symptoms such as hot flashes, osteoporosis and depression.
To control the weight gain, eat a healthy and balanced diet. Avoid coffee, tea and alcohol as these encourage water retention. Avoid sweets and refined sugar and include more fruit and fiber in your diet. Make aerobic exercises a part of your daily routine.
However if you feel the weight gain is excessive, seek medical advice as this may be an indication of a problem with the hormone levels of blood sugar levels.
Osteoporosis Osteoporosis is a condition that occurs when the bones lose their mineral density. Eventually the bones become so brittle. This can result in fractures of the hip or the spine. There is no cure for osteoporosis but there are several treatments for increasing the density of the bones.
Osteoporosis is more common amongst women than men. One of the causes is the estrogen loss that occurs during menopause.
A doctor may recommend a calcium supplement if he feels that a patient is suffering from osteoporosis. A diet rich in calcium is advisable for women undergoing menopause.
Estrogen replacement has been recommended as the best treatment for osteoporosis. It has been found to increase bone density by up to 5 % over a period of two years.
However the best treatment is prevention. Exercising regularly, especially exercises which involve weight bearing such as walking, running and cycling are a good way to strengthen the bones. Eating a diet rich in calcium also goes a long way in strengthening the bones.
Herbal remedies for menopause symptoms
There are several herbal remedies and supplements available in the market which are believed to help alleviate or reduce the symptoms such as hot flashes and depression. Some of these include red clover, black cohosh, dong quai and maca root. These plant estrogen are very similar to the estrogens produced by our bodies. They help to prevent vaginal dryness, regulate body temperature and also reduce the other common symptoms associated with menopause. However, some of the side effects of some of these herbal supplements such as black cohosh are headaches, stomach upsets and possibly liver inflammation.
Did you know
- Cigarette smokers are likely to reach menopause earlier than women who do not smoke.
- Japanese women do not suffer from such severe symptoms as women from other parts of the world
- Mayan women suffer from no symptoms associated with menopause
- Canadian Women's Health Network
- Midlife Passage
- Women's Health
- Tampon Tips