Menopause is the point in time when a woman’s menstrual cycles stop permanently. Due to hormonal changes that occur in her body, a woman ceases ovulating, thus marking the end of her period of fertility.
For most women, the natural transition to menopause usually starts sometime during their 40s, although others may experience changes as early in their mid-30s. Known as perimenopause, this transition period is usually gradual and takes years.
Among Americans, the average age of women having their last period is 51. Of course, this is not the case for all women, so some may reach menopause earlier, while others won’t reach it until later in their 50s.
Hormonal changes during menopause
Suffering from Ache. Image credit:bigstockphoto.com/Andrey Popov
As a woman enters perimenopause, hormonal fluctuations tend to occur in the body. The most significant of these are the changing levels of estrogen and progesterone. Estrogen is responsible for the development and maintenance of the female reproductive system, in addition to being an important regulator of female sex characteristics. Progesterone, on the other hand, plays an important role in fertility and pregnancy.
Due to the fluctuation and gradual decline of estrogen and progesterone in their bodies, menopausal women tend to experience many changes. These can include the following:
• Irregular menstrual cycles – the time between periods may become longer or shorter.
• Hot flashes – episodes of sudden sensation of feverish heat may occur.
• Vaginal conditions - menopause-related vaginal dryness may cause pain during sexual intercourse. Vaginal infections also become more common.
• Urinary tract problems – loss of estrogen can also lead to conditions like urinary incontinence and urinary tract infections.
• Loss of bone mass – menopausal women are more prone to osteoporosis, which causes bones to become brittle and fragile.
• Declining fertility – ovulation becomes erratic during perimenopause. Thus, conceiving may become more challenging.
• Higher LDL cholesterol levels – hormonal changes can contribute to the increase in low-density lipoprotein (LDL) levels in the body. Also known as “bad cholesterol,” LDL is associated with increased risk of heart problems.
• Decreased libido – menopausal women may also experience diminished sexual desire or arousal.
• Difficulty sleeping – some women may also experience trouble sleeping at night, partly because of the nocturnal sweating episodes associated with hot flashes.
• Mood changes – mood swings, irritability, and feelings of sadness are common among women entering perimenopause.
What you can do about the symptoms of menopause
Woman Suffering from Ache. Image credit:bigstockphoto.com/Andrey Popov
Although menopause is an unavoidable fact of life for women, there are things that they can do to minimise its impact on quality of life. These include everything from prescribed medications to lifestyle changes that you can implement at home.
• Bioidentical hormone replacement therapy – your doctor may recommend bioidentical hormone replacement therapy, which aims to bring your body back to equilibrium with the help of biodidentical hormones—substances which are chemically identical to the hormones produced by the human body.
• Dietary changes – consider eating foods rich in plant estrogens, including soy and soy-based products, flaxseed, chickpeas, fennel, sesame seeds, beans, alfalfa, celery, and parsley. Also consume more oily fish (which are rich in good cholesterol), low-fat dairy products, more healthy fats like olive oil, more lean cuts of meat instead of high-fat ones, and more fruits and vegetables every day.
• Regular exercise – it is important that you maintain the strength of your bones and muscles as your enter perimenopause, and one of the best ways to ensure this is by exercising regularly. Physical activities may also help with other symptoms, including mood swings, libido issues, and hot flashes.
Take it upon yourself to do at least 3 hours of moderate physical activity every week. Walking, running, and cycling are good aerobic exercise, while swimming is a popular low-impact form of physical activity that can help minimise the pain or discomfort you feel during exercise.
Before starting an exercise program, however, make sure to consult with your doctor first to avoid complications, especially if you have existing conditions like osteoporosis and heart problems.
• Nutritional supplementation – you may ask your health professional if you need supplementation of nutrients like calcium and vitamin D, which may help in the prevention of osteoporosis.
• Manage hot flashes proactively – try wearing light clothing or turning on the air conditioner at night to minimise the effects of hot flashes. Also avoid foods or substances that can trigger them, including alcohol, caffeine, and spicy dishes.
• Vaginal dryness – over-the-counter vaginal lubricants and moisturisers may help counter the problem of vaginal dryness.
• Meditative activities – activities like tai-chi, yoga, and mindfulness exercises may help with your mood swings.
Finally, there are a number of complementary medicines which have proved efficacious in treating menopausal women including acupuncture, naturopathy and homeopathy.