Menopause is quite simply the end of a woman’s menstrual cycle and marks the end of fertility. But if you’re going through this transition, you know there’s nothing simple about the menopausal process! Even if your body enters early menopause due to damage to, or removal of, the uterus and ovaries, menopausal symptoms can take over your life.
These symptoms typically start before natural menopause begins and can last for four more years after menopause.
Of course, many women can manage or reduce their menopause symptoms by using natural remedies and lifestyle adjustments. Fortunately, though, if your menopausal symptoms are more severe and affect your quality of life, you also have access to various menopause treatment options, like hormone therapy. Let’s dive in to the detail.
What is Menopause?
The term menopause can be confusing because it’s the easiest way to describe the whole menopausal process. However, the truth is that the whole process has three stages: perimenopause, menopause, and post-menopause.
Menopause itself occurs when you haven’t menstruated in 12 consecutive months. At this point, doctors consider you infertile, and you can no longer become pregnant naturally.
What Menopause Does to a Woman
The three stages of the menopausal transition each affect a woman differently.
Perimenopause begins several years before menopause.
- Your ovaries slowly make less estrogen.
- The release of eggs and menstrual cycles become erratic.
- Estrogen levels fall faster in the last 1 to 2 years of perimenopause.
- Many women have menopause symptoms.
Menopause occurs when it’s been a year since you had a period.
- Your ovaries stop releasing eggs.
- Your ovaries stop making most of their estrogen.
- Menopausal symptoms may evolve or even ease up.
Post-menopauseoccurs during the years after menopause.
- Menopause symptoms like night sweats and hot flashes usually ease or disappear.
- Health risks related to the loss of estrogen increase.
When Does Menopause Begin, and How Long Does it Last?
In the strictest definition, menopause only lasts for one day. The day you haven’t had a period for 12 months! But because the transition starts in perimenopause, some women experience menopause symptoms for up to a decade before menopause actually occurs. However, the median age for menopause is 51. And on average, it occurs up to two years earlier for Black and Latina women.
So what does that mean for you? There are many factors that determine when you’ll begin menopause, so the timing for every woman is different.
For example, menopause symptoms like hot flashes and vaginal dryness can last anywhere from a few months to several years. That’s because many women begin perimenopause in their mid-40s, while other women skip perimenopause and enter menopause suddenly. Some women may not make it to their 40s and 50s and go through early menopause (premature menopause).
On the other hand, many women may start experiencing some menopause symptoms, but then they go away – only to return again at what seems like random intervals! This is because menopause isn’t just a short downhill slide of estrogen hormones. It’s a hormone imbalance that causes estrogen levels and many other hormone levels to rollercoaster up and down.
Luckily a hormone imbalance can be treated with hormone therapy. We’ll look in detail at this option later.
However, the hormone roller coaster ride leads many women to ask: How do I know if I’m in menopause? And what can I do about these menopause symptoms?
Menopause Signs and Symptoms – and Treatments if You’re Experiencing Them
Before we get to menopause symptoms, let’s look at what happens to your body during menopause.
Menopause is a natural process during which the body undergoes changes in response to lower levels of:
- follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH)
- luteinizing hormone (LH)
The most notable physical change, however, is the loss of active ovarian follicles, which produce and release eggs. If your body is not releasing eggs, you will not menstruate and will no longer be fertile.
During perimenopause, however, the frequency of your period simply becomes less consistent. Your periods may be late, or you may even skip them for months at a time. Your menstrual flow may become heavier and longer, or lighter and shorter.
You’ll also notice some physical changes that are common around the time of menopause, like:
- weight gain
- a buildup of fat around the abdomen
- breast reduction and tenderness
- changes in hair color, texture, and volume
- urinary incontinence
In addition, you may experience one or more menopausal symptoms. Let’s look at them now.
What Are the Symptoms of Menopause?
There’s more to menopause than just hot flashes. Every woman’s menopause transition is unique. Symptoms can range from absent to severe and are usually more severe when menopause occurs suddenly or over a shorter time.
In addition, the severity of symptoms is affected by conditions that impact the health of your ovary, like cancer or hysterectomy, or certain lifestyle choices, like smoking.
The most common early signs of perimenopause include:
- less frequent menstruation
- heavier or lighter periods than you normally experience
- flushing, hot flashes, and night sweats
In fact, about 75% of women experience hot flashes as a menopause symptom. Other common symptoms of menopause include:
- vaginal dryness
- mood swings
- sore or tender breasts
- difficulty concentrating
- memory problems
- sleep disturbances
- reduced libido, or sex drive
- dry skin, mouth, and eyes
- increased urination
- urinary tract infections (UTIs)
- reduced muscle mass
- decreased fertility
- racing heart
- reduced bone mass
- hair thinning or loss
- increased hair growth on the neck, face, chest, and upper back
- painful or stiff joints
Beyond menopause symptoms, your body may also undergo some common complications and is at a higher risk for conditions like:
- vulvovaginal atrophy
- painful intercourse
- slower metabolic function
- mood or sudden emotional changes
- periodontal disease
- urinary incontinence
- heart or blood vessel disease
- breast cancer
How is Menopause Diagnosed?
Although menopause is not an illness (it can feel like it at times!), many women benefit from seeing their doctors during perimenopause and beyond. The menopausal transition can be anxiety-provoking, so it can be very reassuring to have a doctor confirm whether the reason for physical changes and symptoms is perimenopause or menopause.
It’s also helpful to work with a doctor during this time, because they can customize an ever-evolving menopause treatment plan for you.
However, there’s no definitive test for menopause. Instead, menopause diagnosis relies on symptoms, medical history, and menstrual information.
Your doctor may also ask for blood tests to rule out other conditions, which may include:
- thyroid function tests
- blood lipid profile
- liver function tests
- kidney function tests
And although these next ones fluctuate on a daily basis, your doctor may also test levels of
- chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) tests
In addition, there’s a new diagnostic blood test (PicoAMH Elisa) recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that can help determine whether a woman has entered menopause or is getting close to entering menopause.
Treatment for Menopause
Menopause is not a health problem. However, hormonal changes and other factors involved can cause discomfort and affect your ability to live your life as you would like.
Trying to live with constant hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, and a reduced sex drive can be debilitating. And riding the emotional roller coaster, the anxiety, and the possible depression that can accompany menopause can be overwhelming.
At times like these, menopause treatments like menopausal hormone therapy can save your life.
What’s the best treatment for menopause? It depends.
Menopause treatments focus on relieving your symptoms and preventing or managing chronic conditions that may occur with aging. For some women, making lifestyle adjustments is enough, while others need to go on hormone therapy to get relief. The best treatment for menopause is therefore a combination of approaches based on your individual needs.
Lifestyle changes are one component of a strong menopause treatment plan. They can also help you feel more positive if you have premature menopause. So here are seven key changes you could make.
Lifestyle changes that can help manage minor-to-moderate menopause symptoms include:
1 Keep your cool and stay comfortable
Managing hot flashes is sometimes as simple as dressing in loose, layered clothing during the day and keeping your bedroom cool at night.
If you keep your bedroom cool and avoid heavy blankets, you’ll not only have a better chance of avoiding hot flashes, but it can also help reduce your chances of night sweats.
If you do suffer from sweating at night, you can also try outfitting your bed with a cooling mattress topper and water-wicking sheets to make your sleep conditions more comfortable.
Carrying a portable fan in your bag is also a great way to ward off hot flashes when you’re on the go.
2 Keep your body moving and your weight managed
Your weight may try to skyrocket, so practicing healthy nutrition habits is a must. You may even need to reduce your daily calorie intake or get some support from a medical weight loss and management plan.
20 to 30 minutes a day of moderate exercise is also a must during the menopausal years. It can help:
- increase energy and libido
- promote a better night’s sleep
- improve your mood
- promote your general wellbeing
- reduce anxiety
3 Communicate about how you feel and what you need
Your body’s going through a lot. Chances are, you’re also going through a lot of transitions in your family and work life. Talking with your family and friends can help them better understand what you’re going through so they can support you more.
If you need even more support, working with a therapist or psychologist about feelings of depression, anxiety, sadness, isolation, insomnia, and identity changes can help you understand what’s going on with you and what you can do to support your emotional and mental health.
4 Practice relaxation and meditation techniques
Practicing relaxation and breathing techniques like box breath, yoga, meditation, and tai chi can support your emotional wellbeing, calm your nervous system, and relieve hot flashes.
5 Quit smoking and limit your alcohol use
Exposure to cigarette smoke can make menopause symptoms worse. If you smoke, find help to quit. If you’re around smokers, avoid exposure to secondhand smoke. Heavy drinking, too, can increase the risk of health concerns. Therefore, limiting your alcohol intake can help you avoid these risks and reduce worsening symptoms.
6 Supplement your diet
Taking calcium, vitamin D, and magnesium supplements can reduce your risk for osteoporosis and improve energy levels and sleep. In addition, eating foods high in omega fatty acids or taking omega supplements may improve vasomotor symptoms like hot flashes.
7 Menopausal hormone therapy
If your symptoms are severe or affecting your quality of life, menopausal hormone therapy – as we mentioned above – may be a very effective addition to your treatment plan. Hormone therapy can manage and reduce
- vaginal dryness
- vaginal atrophy
- hot flashes
- night sweats
What is Menopausal Hormone Therapy?
Hormone therapy helps balance your body’s hormone levels by providing supplemental estrogen and progesterone.
Estrogen therapy is the most effective option for relieving menopausal hot flashes. Your doctor will look at your personal and family medical history to determine if estrogen is a good option for your personal situation. If you still have your uterus, your doctor will also recommend progestin in addition to estrogen.
Vaginal estrogen is a local hormone therapy that helps relieve vaginal dryness. You or your doctor applies vaginal estrogen directly to the vagina using a cream, tablet, or ring that releases a small amount of estrogen. Your vaginal tissues then absorb the estrogen and relieve vaginal dryness, discomfort with intercourse, and some urinary symptoms.
Hormone therapy comes in various forms, including skin patches, pills, pellets, and topical creams.
Is Menopausal Hormone Therapy Safe?
When used under a doctor’s or hormone specialist’s guidance, hormone therapy is safe. However, you should not use hormone therapy if you or a family member has risk factors for the following health problems:
- blood clots
- heart disease
- high levels of triglycerides in the blood
- breast cancer
- gallbladder disease
- liver disease
Even if you don’t have these conditions, it’s always good to discuss the benefits and risks of hormone therapy with your doctor before deciding to use it.
Medicines That Treat Menopause Symptoms
Aside from menopausal hormone therapy, other medications may be suitable for treating specific menopause symptoms, like vaginal dryness or hair loss.
Medications sometimes used for specific symptoms often include:
- topical minoxidil 5 percent for hair thinning and loss
- antidandruff shampoos for hair loss
- selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for hot flashes, anxiety, and depression
- ospemifene for vaginal dryness and painful intercourse
- non-hormonal vaginal moisturizers and lubricants for vaginal dryness
- prophylactic antibiotics for UTIs
- gabapentin to help reduce hot flashes
- sleep medications for insomnia
How Nava Center Can Help
If you believe you must suffer through menopause symptoms until they go away on their own, we have good news! We’ve developed a strategy to help address menopause by restoring hormone levels. Our Hormone Optimization Therapy is unique because it isn’t just about Bioidentical Hormone Therapy. It also includes Adrenal Recharge therapy and Thyroid Balance programs. Our functional approach to weight loss and weight management can also help you stay fit and at your target weight during menopause.