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Menopause - A Natural Change

Menopause will affect every woman at some point in her life.  It is part of the natural aging process, indicating the end of fertility.  For some women, it is a relief to be freed from their monthly menstrual cycles; for others, it marks an end of procreation, and therefore, an end to femininity and sexuality.  While social norms have tied a woman’s ability to procreate with her overall sexuality, the time of life post-menopause can be just as fulfilling as it was pre-menopause.  With the help of your physician, you can overcome the symptoms of menopause.  Through lifestyle changes, alternative therapies, and prescription medicines, the effects of menopause can be drastically curtailed. 

What Exactly is Menopause?

Menopause is defined as a natural aging process, whereby a woman’s ovaries stop releasing eggs and slowly taper off their production of the sex hormones, estrogen and progesterone.  The cessation of menstruation for a period of one year marks the final stage of menopause, as well as the end of fertility and child-bearing status.  It generally occurs around the age of 50. 

Types of Menopause:

Natural Menopause occurs in women between the ages of 40 to 60, without medical intervention.

Perimenopause literally means “around menopause”, marked by the physical signs of “the change” many years before the complete end of menstruation.  It is the transition time when ovaries stop producing hormones and releasing eggs.  The common signs of perimenopause are irregular periods, hot flashes, vaginal dryness, sleep disturbances, and mood swings.   

Induced Menopause is due to medical intervention, such as surgery or cancer treatments. 

Premature Menopause / Early Menopause denotes women who experience menopause before the age of 40.  It can occur naturally through genetics, or can be induced through medical intervention.

Postmenopause refers to all the years after menopause.  

Symptoms of Menopause: What to Expect and What You Can Do

Each woman will undergo menopause, yet each women will experience it in her own way.  Sometimes an indicator of your particular symptoms can be foreseen with the experiences your mother had, but this is not always the case.  Some women get by with little to no symptoms, while others describe the physical changes as debilitating.  It is beneficial to know that the process is normal, and that these symptoms will not endure for the rest of your life.  There are 34 symptoms of menopause that have been identified; below are the most common:

Hot flashes and night sweats tend to be the most infamous symptoms of menopause, generally reported by 75% of menopausal women.  Though poorly understood, hot flashes could be the result of changes in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain that regulates body temperature.  Typically it is experienced as an intense wave of heat that can last from 30 seconds to several minutes; the body reacts by perspiring, which often causes chills.  Heavy sweating at night is known as night sweats.  The consistency and intensity of hot flashes varies from woman to woman—some are slight, while others share the same symptomatic traits as a panic attack, with heavy heart palpitations and feelings of anxiety.  They will generally stop on their own, and last a period of three to five years.     

There are many different ways to treat hot flashes.  Pay attention to your routine and identify what triggers a hot flash; abstain from spicy foods, alcohol and hot drinks, exercise to relieve stress, dress in light layers, and avoid external heat sources, such as blow dryers and warm environments.

Keep your bedroom cool during the night.  Open the windows, use an electric fan or air conditioner, and keep a small folding fan in your purse during the day.  If night sweats are particularly bad, think about investing in high-tech sheets that will absorb the sweat away from the body.  On the onset of a hot flash breathe slowly through the abdomen.

Natural treatments include food products that contain phytoestrogens, a chemical produced by plants that acts like estrogen.  Introducing soy, flax seed, some beans, peas, and lentils to your diet may help reduce hot flashes.  Other non-prescription treatments include magnesium/calcium, vitamin E, and vitamin B complex supplements, as well as Ibuprofen. 

Hormonal Replacement Therapy (HRT) consists of estrogens, or an estrogen and progesterone combination.  It is effective for treating moderate to severe hot flashes, reducing symptoms by 80-90%.  Long-term treatment of HRT, however, increases the risk for heart disease, stroke, and breast cancer.      

Other prescription remedies include blood pressure medications (such as Catapres), birth control pills, antidepressants, and anti-seizure medications.

Vaginal Symptoms include irritation, burning, dryness, itchiness, and pain during intercourse.  The thinning of the vulva and uterine tissues, brought about by decreasing estrogen levels, can cause these conditions.  While vaginal secretions are lessened, causing dryness, the pH levels may increase, causing infections.  Because the vaginal lining is less elastic, sexual intercourse can be painful, and even cause injury.

Use water-soluble lubricants or vaginal moisturizers during sex, as well as throughout the day for comfort.  Drink lots of water, and eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.  Take a bath in comfrey, an herb known to treat various skin conditions.  See your health care provider to determine whether you have a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis.

Insomnia is a typical symptom of menopause.  It may result from night sweats, or simply because hormonal levels are changing.  Taking sleeping pills may provide some short-term relief, but may also cause serious side-effects and can even lead to a sleeping pill addiction.  The average adult requires 6-9 hours of sleep every night, and lack of sleep could cause depression and anxiety in waking life.

There are various lifestyle changes that may help you get a good night’s rest.  Firstly, reduce the caffeine in your life—soda, coffee, tea, and chocolate.  Don’t eat heavy meals before bedtime; cheese, bacon, spinach, sausages, and tomatoes are high in tyramine, which promotes alertness.  Eat foods like turkey, bananas, yogurt, figs, and peanut butter, all of which contain high levels of tryptophan, an amino acid that helps with sleep.  Regular exercise will help exhaust energy levels, making it easier to sleep at night. 

Various changes in the central nervous system can cause headaches, memory loss, mood swings, and depression.  These conditions may or may not be directly related to menopause, so see your physician if they are severe and debilitating. 

A woman who experiences headaches or migraines during her normal menstrual cycle has a greater likelihood of suffering from them during perimenopause.  You may require prescription drugs if the headaches get progressively worse, cause you to wake up from sleep, or are accompanied by a stiff neck and high fever.

Memory loss and lack of concentration may be associated with low levels of estrogen.  Estrogen controls the hormone cortisol, which blocks the function of neurotransmitters within the brain.  When estrogen is low, brain cells that normally communicate with one another begin malfunctioning, causing lapses in memory.  By balancing hormonal levels with phytosestrogen, women may curb these effects. 

It is unclear whether menopause causes severe anxiety or clinical depression.  Some perimenopausal women report tearfulness, mood swings, and feelings of discouragement.  Sleep deprivation could be a cause, resulting in fatigue and irritability. 

You should first determine whether your feelings are psychological or physical.  A pre-existing clinical depression could be aggravated and worsened through menopause.  Women who have experience premenstrual syndrome (PMS) during earlier menstrual cycles are reacting to hormonal changes.  Managing stress, changing your lifestyle, and seeking hormonal balances may be the key to relief.

Herbal Remedies:

Natural treatments can help alleviate many of the symptoms of menopause.  Always consult your doctor before taking herbal remedies.

Black cohosh is a North American herb that can ease menstrual cramps, and can be used to treat depression, moodiness, and hot flashes. 

Gingko biloba improves glucose and oxygen levels in the brain, and in effect, improves memory and cognitive functions. 

St. John’s Wort is a natural antidepressant, commonly used for anxiety disorders.

Male Menopause:

Known as andropause, male menopause refers to a decrease in hormonal levels throughout the body, especially testosterone.  About 40% of men between the ages of 40 and 60 experience andropause.  The symptoms are similar to female menopause, like hot flashes, mood swings, memory loss, insomnia, and loss of libido.  

Testosterone is responsible for muscle growth and sex drive.  So when a man goes through andropause, he may suffer from overall weakness, loss of body and bone mass, as well as impotence.  The methods to cope with this change are also similar to the ways women deal with menopause: regular exercise, avoiding caffeine, drinking lots of water, eating nutritious meals, and efficiently dealing with stress. 

When symptoms are severe, men may seek Testosterone Replacement Therapy (TRT).  Comparable to HRT for menopausal women, TRT attempts to create hormonal balance.