Menopause 101

Menopause 101

This article has been peer-reviewed by Dr. LaReesa Ferdinand, a Women’s Hormone Expert, Integrative Health Advocate, Board Certified OBGYN, Mentor, & Author.

Periods. Birth control. Pregnancy. Menopause. As young women, we know to speak in hushed tones about our periods and hide our tampons. If we breastfeed, we’re told to do so behind closed doors. Throughout menopause, we suffer in silence through hot flashes, bad sleep, and changing brain chemistry.

Women’s health, particularly menopause, continues to be overlooked and under-taught. The majority of menopausal women often feel stigmatized talking about their symptoms and according to researchers at Harvard, that makes them less likely to seek medical help when they need it. Fortunately, another study has identified a simple solution: women need better access to quality information about navigating their health throughout menopause.

This guide hopes to answer that need. There’s a lot of information about menopause online but it’s split across hundreds of blogs, sites, and posts and only some of it should be trusted. In this article, we review what menopause is, its impact on your health, and strategies for managing your symptoms. Every statistic and recommendation comes from the foremost authorities in menopause and has been reviewed by doctors who specialize in treating menopausal women. We hope that after reading, you’ll feel empowered and prepared to embrace menopause.

What is Menopause?

Women typically start the transition into menopause in their late forties or early fifties, between 47 and 55, but premature menopause can be induced by some medical treatments like chemotherapy or by the removal of ovaries during time of hysterectomy or other medical reasons. Regardless of the cause, menopause and its symptoms are ultimately brought on by dropping estrogen levels.

Throughout a woman’s life, she loses some of her eggs (or oocytes) with each menstrual cycle. These eggs are the body’s estrogen producers so around the age of 35, women’s estrogen levels will start to decline. This reduction of estrogen and the number of eggs in the ovarian reserve culminates when both are all lost by the onset of menopause. The first part of this transition is called perimenopause: which begins when you have very few eggs left and ends with menopause, a year after your last period**.** During perimenopause, women might start noticing symptoms, starting with irregular periods and other consequences of fluctuating hormones. It’s important to note that during perimenopause, women can still conceive and should continue to use a birth control method if they do not want to be pregnant. It is not until menopause that a woman’s reproductive years and menstrual cycle officially end; and consequently, her estrogen levels completely drop and other sex hormones, progesterone and testosterone drastically decline as well.

Like every other stage of life, the timing and onset of your menopausal transition varies greatly between individuals. However, being able to recognize when you start perimenopause and menopause is crucial to managing your symptoms and adjusting your lifestyle to best suit these phases of life and health.  

Read more: National Institute on Aging: Menopause.

Menopause: the good & the bad

Menopause feels and looks different for every woman. Some women rejoice at the end of their monthly periods and risk of pregnancy. Other women report dreading menopause and its symptoms. This breadth of attitudes might reflect the range of experiences women go through. There are many symptoms associated with menopause, so many that we can’t be exhaustive in this short article. We’ve decided to list some of the most common symptoms below, but you shouldn’t be concerned if these symptoms don’t reflect your experience, that isn’t necessarily an indicator of your health but is expected considering how variable menopause can be from woman to woman. There are over 40 reported symptoms related to the menopause transition, from hot mouth to joint pain to ringing in the ears, and you should communicate those as well when speaking to your doctor.  

  • Hot flashes & Night Sweats: One of the most commonly experienced symptoms is hot flashes. Hot flashes are sudden and intense feelings of heat that can last a few seconds up to several minutes, often accompanied by sweating and a rapid heartbeat. Depending on their severity, they might significantly impact your quality of life and sleep.  ****
  • Mood swings: Another common symptom of menopause is mood swings caused by the loss of estrogen which, before menopause, regulates your mood through interaction with neurotransmitters. These ****can manifest as sudden changes in emotional well-being, ranging from irritability and anxiety to moments of sadness.
  • Vaginal dryness: The decline in estrogen levels during menopause can lead to thinning and drying of the vaginal tissues, resulting in discomfort, itching, and pain during sexual activity.
  • Changes in libido: Fluctuations in estrogen and testosterone levels during menopause can contribute to changes in sexual desire.
  • Weight gain: The decline in estrogen levels during menopause can contribute to a redistribution of body fat. Estrogen typically distributes fat into the hips and breasts and as it declines during menopause, that might shift to abdominal fat.
  • Memory problems: Some women might experience memory changes due to a decline in estrogen levels but these are not necessarily indicative of long-term cognitive decline.
  • Bone loss: During and post-menopause, women are at a high risk of experiencing bone loss and osteoporosis due to hormonal changes.

It’s important to recognize that despite the many symptoms associated with menopause, its a natural biological process and part of aging that can also represent freedom and eventually, hormonal stability. Although menopause can be difficult and disruptive, accepting your transition will let you manage your symptoms proactively and take preventative measures to promote your health.

Taking Control of Your Health Throughout Menopause

It’s important to know that menopause and post-menopausal life represent more than a reproductive change — it marks a significant change to your body and health as a whole. After menopause, your rate of aging accelerates and your risk of developing cardiovascular disease as well as osteoporosis increases significantly. There is no better time to take control of your health because both aging and disease can be slowed by adjusting your lifestyle or seeking treatment.

In the table below, we have listed a few of the most common and impactful symptoms, along with different avenues of treatment to consider (as recommended by clinicians). In addition to some of those specific recommendations, many lifestyle changes can have positive effects across numerous symptoms of menopause. The two most impactful changes you could make to promote your menopausal health are ceasing smoking and decreasing your alcohol consumption. Similarly, maintaining a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, and adequate sleep are all even more essential to your health entering this phase of life. If getting good sleep is difficult for you, setting a regular sleep routine and avoiding exercise or large meals before bed could help.

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