Menopause is a natural part of aging for women, beginning on average at the age of 51. The period that is often referred to as menopause is actually called perimenopause, one of the three stages of menopause. Perimenopause is the time when a woman’s body begins to transition into menopause, and it is marked by hot flashes, night sweats, and vaginal dryness. This lasts until the last menstrual period, which is typically three to five years after perimenopause begins. Perimenopause often begins in the 40s, but some women can even enter it in their 30s, and it can last for up to 10 years.
There are a few reasons for early perimenopause, the biggest being smoking, having never been pregnant, and living at high altitudes. Also, if you have your ovaries removed, your menopause will appear suddenly.
Symptoms of perimenopause can last for up to ten years, but on average, they last for four years. Over time, the symptoms of perimenopause will lessen in severity, through menopause and the years following, called postmenopause.
A doctor will diagnose menopause 12 months after the menstrual cycle ends, at which point you enter the postmenopausal stage. Menopause is not actually a process, but is the point where the menstrual cycle has stopped for 12 months in a row.
Women can experience menopause prior to their 50s. Early menopause is diagnosed if a woman goes through it at the age of 45 or younger. If you’re menopausal and are 40 or younger, it’s considered premature menopause. These can happen due to surgery, like a hysterectomy (removing all or part of the uterus), or from damage to the ovaries by various conditions or treatments, like chemotherapy.
The most common symptoms that occur during perimenopause include:
Hot flashes. These are the most common symptom of perimenopause, and studies estimate that 75 percent of women experience them. It’s typically described as a rush of heat that spreads over the body, lasting several seconds to a few minutes. Flushed skin, sweating, and heart palpitations often accompany hot flashes, and they can happen anywhere from multiple times a day to a few times a month. They typically last for two to three years.
Night sweats. If you have a hot flash while sleeping, you will have night sweats. They wake you up and make you tired the next day. This can be accompanied by insomnia.
Cold flashes. After cooling down from a hot flash, you may experience chills, cold feet, and shivering.
Urinary incontinence. This is the involuntary leakage of urine. For menopausal women, it is often accompanied by burning sensation while urinating.
Vaginal changes. As estrogen affects the vaginal lining, changes in the vagina are common during menopause. Vaginal dryness, pain during intercourse, and a change in vaginal discharge may take place.
Bone loss. Perimenopausal women often experience rapid bone loss. Between a woman’s 30s and perimenopause, a woman loses on average 0.13 percent bone density per year. Once perimenopause hits, it goes up to three percent.
Emotional changes. Mild depression, anxiety, irritability, and mood swings are often linked to menopause.
Weight gain. A study found an average gain of five pounds during three perimenopause years.
The simple answer is yes, all women do go through menopause because it cannot be avoided. However, you can reduce the symptoms and risk factors associated with menopause.
Postmenopausal women are recommended to up their calcium intake to 1,200-1,500 mg daily, as well as their vitamin D intake. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium.
You can easily obtain 1,500 mg of calcium through diet, however, supplements are a good option for postmenopausal women. This mainly helps to work against bone loss and tiredness.
Perimenopause and menopause are sometimes painful, and usually uncomfortable for most women. You can’t prevent them, as this is a normal part of aging, but you can manage the symptoms. Here are some tips to follow:
Hot flashes. To manage hot flashes, work to identify what triggers your episodes and avoid them—spicy foods and alcohol are common culprits. Try to stay cool at all times by using a fan at home and at work, and by removing layers whenever you start to feel overheated. Be calm when you feel a hot flash starting, as panic can worsen the experience.
Vaginal dryness. This can be easily handled by using water-based, over-the-counter lubricants when having sex, or by a vaginal moisturizer. There are prescriptions available for more severe discomfort, so if the above options don’t work, make sure you visit your doctor.
Sleep problems. If you’re having trouble sleeping, you should make sure to avoid all sources of caffeine after noon. Having a small dinner may be helpful too. Try not to nap throughout the day, and avoid exercising close to bedtime. Make sure your sleeping environment is dark, quiet, and cool to help with hot flashes.
Mood swings. Staying active, eating right, and just being overall healthy can help with mood swings. If you’re having serious mood problems, be sure to talk to your doctor, who may prescribe something to treat them.
Although you can’t stop it altogether, your doctor may prescribe menopausal hormone therapy (MHT) to help treat your symptoms. It’s effective in reducing hot flashes, night sweats, sleep problems, irritability, and vaginal dryness. It could also help to reduce bone loss and ease mood problems.
If you opt for MHT, you need to be aware of the side effects. Studies show that women taking MHT are at an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and blood clots. Other side effects include nausea, headaches, breast swelling, bloating, and vaginal bleeding.
When going through perimenopause, it’s normal to have an irregular period. However, other conditions can cause irregular bleeding that you may think is due to menopause—namely, cervical cancer and polycystic ovary syndrome. If you experience sudden heavy periods or periods with blood clots, have periods close together, and bleed and spot after sex or your period, see a doctor to rule out other causes.
It’s important to understand that life after menopause can and should be just as great as life during your reproductive years. Be sure to take care of yourself just as you normally would: eat right, exercise, and don’t skip doctor’s appointments. If you’re healthy, your postmenopausal years will be just as rewarding as your younger years.