Menopause is a natural stage in a women’s life that signals the end of her reproductive or childbearing years. It occurs when her ovaries stop producing eggs and there is a gradual decline in the amount of estrogen and progesterone her body produces. It is medically defined as the point in a woman’s life where she has not had a menstrual period for one full year. The average age for menopause is 51.
Perimenopause are the years leading up to menopause. In most women, the perimenopausal period begins in the late forties and lasts approximately two to four years. Once twelve months have passed since a woman’s last period, she has formally reached menopause. Postmenopause refers to the years that follow.
Today, there are over 45 million postmenopausal American women.
While symptoms of menopause vary from woman to woman, the most commonly cited ones are:
- Hot flashes
- Sleep disruptions
- Changes in sexual function and desire
In addition, headaches, memory difficulties, mood swings and irregularities in heartbeats can also occur.
The severity and duration of symptoms also differ: Some women experience very intense hot flashes or swinging changes in mood while others experience only mild forms of these common symptoms. Symptoms gradually become less severe and less frequent following the first year after menopause.
What Causes Menopause?
Menopause is caused by a series of hormonal changes that naturally occur in a woman’s body. When a woman is born, her ovaries hold all of the eggs she will have for her entire lifetime, usually around 1 to 3 million eggs. Through each menstrual cycle and with each passing year, a woman loses eggs. By the time she hits menopause, she may have only 10,000 eggs left in her ovaries.
The primary hormones that are responsible for bringing about the changes of menopause are estrogen and progesterone. The amount of these two hormones circulating in the body drops over time and at some point, they drop enough so that menstruation stops.
The loss of estrogen is believed to play a large role in causing the symptoms of menopause.
Since menopause is a natural stage in a women’s life, there are not any risk factors associated with it but radiation therapy, chemotherapy or removal of the ovaries earlier in life can trigger early menopause.
Menopause does impact other organs and systems of the women’s body. For instance, estrogen affects the function of the heart vessels as well as the reproductive organs. As estrogen decreases, a woman’s risk for heart disease increases. In addition, the rapid loss of bone density during this time increases risk of osteoporosis. The loss of elasticity in the tissues of the vagina and urethra increases risk for urinary incontinence and the slowing down of metabolism can lead to weight gain.
Since menopause is a natural condition, it does not need to be treated. But many women choose to treat some of the uncomfortable symptoms associated with menopause.
Treating menopause can be multifaceted approach that contains element of both Western and Complementary Medicines. The most common conventional treatment approach is Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), which seeks to reestablish the balance of estrogen and progesterone into the body through the use of synthetic hormones. In addition to treating some of the symptoms of menopause, HRT may also prevent bone loss and reduce risk of colon cancer. Conversely, HRT raises a women’s risk for endometrial cancer and heart disease so deciding whether to use HRT is a personal decision that must be made between the woman, her medical history and her medical practitioner.
Additional Menopause Treatment
There are a variety of herbal and botanical treatments that have shown limited success with quelling the symptoms of menopause. Such substances have estrogen-like qualities called phytoestrogens that may provide that may help relieve some of the discomfort associated with hot flashes and night sweats. Black Cohosh, dietary soy, dong quai, and flaxseeds are some of the most popular forms of herbs and botanicals that are used in conjunction with HRT or by themselves.
The decision to take a complementary or alternative treatment should be discussed thoroughly with your medical doctor particularly due to the many menopause supplements that contain false marketing and advertising claims or may have contraindications for the woman’s health.
In addition to supplements, lifestyle behaviors play an important role in managing the symptoms of menopause. Maintaining a regular exercise routine, eating a well-balanced diet full of whole foods, fruits and vegetables and healthy fats as well as partaking in some kind of stress-reducing activity like yoga, meditation or tai chi are other ways that a woman can effectively manage the symptoms of menopause.
While there is no way to prevent menopause, there are a number of things a woman can do to prevent or control the symptoms associated with this period of her life.
Good nutrition is important to prevent or reduce the risk of some of the symptoms of menopause. Getting the right amounts of calcium and Vitamin D is essential to prevent additional bone loss and reduce risk of bone-related fractures and breaks. In addition, eating a diet full of fruits, vegetables, natural forms of soy like tofu, tempeh and edamame, and whole grains and exercising regularly and not smoking will not just help to keep weight at a healthy level but may also reduce the occurrence of hot flashes and some of the other symptoms associated with menopause, particularly the increased risk of heart disease.
Preventing the anxiety, stress and mood swings that may come with this period of a woman’s life can be accomplished through regularly practicing mind-body technique like yoga or meditation.
There are a variety of supportive resources a woman can access in order to better understand, cope and manage the experience of menopause. Just a few decades ago, menopause was rarely mentioned or discussed but today, research institutions, medical facilities, websites and organizations are dedicated to learning more about this stage of a woman’s life so that she receives the support and guidance she requires in order for her to live a happy and healthy life.
Here are additional resources on menopause:
- Menopause to Health connects you with online or face-to-face support groups
- The National Women’s Health Information Center is the federal government’s source of women’s health information.
- The North American Menopause Society is the leading nonprofit scientific organization devoted to promoting women’s health and quality of life through an understanding of menopause