What you need to know

What is menopause?

Menopause is a normal event in a woman's life. It signifies the end of fertility – the reproductive cycle has reached its end and the ovaries no longer function as they did when the woman was in her childbearing years. On average, menopause occurs between the ages of 45 and 55. It is defined as the cessation of menstruation and is confirmed when a women does not have a period for 12 consecutive months. Some women start to experience symptoms anywhere from one to six years before actually entering menopause.

There are many stages and types associated with menopause:

  • Early menopause. Menopause that is natural or induced but occurs before average age of 45 to 55.
  • Premature menopause. This is natural or induced menopause occurring at or prior to a woman reaching 40 years of age.
  • Induced menopause. This is medical or surgical intervention which removes or compromises the functioning of the ovaries well before the average age of natural menopause.
  • Peri menopause. The years leading up to menopause where a women starts to experience the symptoms of menopause. It literally means "around menopause."
  • Post menopause. All the years after the final menstrual period.

Peri menopause is the transition into menopause. This transition phase is characterized by declining ovarian function. Hormones will start to fluctuate and gradually decline, which could result in mood swings and hot flashes, to name a few. A woman may still be able to conceive during perimenopause but her fertility is very low. Perimenopause ends one year after the final menstrual period.

What are the signs and symptoms of menopause?

Each woman experiences menopause differently. Some women have little or no symptoms, while others have extreme symptoms. The severity of symptoms will vary from woman to woman, with some symptoms lasting a short time while others may linger. Symptoms include:

  • Irregular periods (starting in perimenopause)
  • Dry skin
  • Mood changes (mood swings, depression, anxiety and irritability)
  • Vagiperhapnal dryness
  • Headaches
  • Sleep problems
  • Fatigue and tiredness
  • Hot flashes
  • Night sweats
  • Joint aches and pain
  • Lack of sexual desire
  • Problems with concentration and memory
  • Weight gain
  • Hair loss and thinning hair
  • Weakening of the bones

Hot flashes are the most common symptom, and can occur at any time of the day. The exact cause is still unknown, but they are believed to be the result of changes in the area of the brain that regulates body temperature. When this area is triggered to sense that a woman is cold, it sets off a mechanism to heat the body. This leads to the red flushed feeling, especially in a woman's face. She begins to perspire in order to cool down, which in turn leads to a chilled feeling. If she sweats heavily during the night (called the "night sweats"), it could lead to sleep disturbances, which in turn produce fatigue and possible irritability. It's a chain of events that link themselves together in a cycle. Though approximately two-thirds of women experience hot flashes, the good news is the hot flashes will eventually stop on their own.

How can I treat the symptoms?

Treatment of menopause is dependent on the type and severity of symptoms and will differ from woman to woman. The best action is to seek professional help from your physician or gynecologist.

The most common prescription treatment is HRT or hormone replacement therapy. HRT is the use of a synthetic estrogen taken daily in pill form. Hormone replacement is the most effective option for relieving severe hot flashes and other symptoms caused by the fluctuations in estrogen and other hormones. It does have its side effects and contraindications, so it is not appropriate for all women.

Other prescription treatments are not geared toward menopause itself, but the symptoms. For example, medications such as Neurontin will be prescribed for migraines or headaches. Depression and anxiety can be treated with Paxil and Prozac, and high blood pressure can be treated with Aldomet, Catapres (clonidine). One point to remember, these symptoms need a thorough medical exam by your physician before any prescriptions are given.

Ways to Cope with Menopause

Lifestyle Changes

  • Identify and avoid what triggers the symptom. For example, hot flashes and headaches can be triggered by caffeine, smoking, spicy foods, hot drinks or alcoholic beverages.
  • To reduce stress and promote sleep, engage in regular exercise. Some women find that yoga, Pilates, meditation, acupressure and massage helps.
  • Find ways to stay cool during the day and especially at night. Dress in light clothing. Sleep in bed covered with only a sheet. Keep a fan or air conditioning on. Keep a glass of cold water at the bedside to sip when awakening. Learn techniques to help relax and promote sleep, such as relaxation and breathing exercises.
  • Join a support group of other women experiencing menopause. You might get new insight on how to deal with symptoms.

Dietary Changes

  • Some women find that if they increase their consumption of soy products such as soy milk, tofu and soybeans, they can reduce some symptoms by 15 percent.
  • Limit or reduce intake of salt, simple sugars and carbohydrates.
  • Consume a low-fat, high-fiber diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
  • Increase intake of milk and dairy products. Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
  • Another treatment for menopause is classified as non-prescription therapy. This includes vitamins, herbs and minerals such as black cohosh (a herbal supplement useful to treat hot flashes, mood swings and other symptoms), calcium and vitamin D supplements, B-complex vitamins and multivitamins.

All women experience menopause, but each in her own unique way. Some women may be influenced by their expectations as well. If you become knowledgeable about menopause, work together with your physician and set a plan with goals for dealing with it, you can make your experience a positive one.

By Kathleen Gadomski