Making sense of menopause
By Susan Skog
Hello, Menopause. It often arrives just as you’re juggling many other major life changes: career shifts, college-bound teens, and aging parents.
But better understanding menopausal symptoms can help women manage the transition, stay healthy and strong, and ease the confusion that can surround menopause, says Roxanne Slayden, a physician assistant at The Women’s Clinic of Northern Colorado.
“It’s good to remember that menopause is a natural physiological process that every woman goes through. It marks a time when our ovaries stop producing eggs, our estrogen levels decline, and menstrual cycles start becoming irregular,” Slayden says.
Most women enter into perimenopause, or the transition period before menopause, in their 40s. It can last from about four to 10 years. Changes in menstrual cycles and flow are often the first sign, Slayden says. “Time between menstrual periods may be longer or shorter, and the flow can be heavier, lighter, or just spotting. It’s also common to skip periods. You may skip cycles for a month or months.”
Women are fully in menopause when they’ve had no menstrual cycle for 12 consecutive months. “The average age for menopause is 52, but the range can be from 40 to 55.”
Life changes, normal aging, and stress can easily cause symptoms similar to menopause: weight gain, fatigue, mood swings, irritability, sleep issues, and thyroid disorders.
“Also, remember that each woman is unique and will not have every symptom of menopause. Some may have only one symptom. Some may have 10,” Slayden adds.
Common menopausal symptoms include hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, irritability, sleep issues, anxiety, depression, vaginal dryness, decreased libido, fatigue, weight gain, foggy thinking, loss of collagen and elasticity in the skin, changes in hair texture and amount, headaches, frequent urinary tract infections (UTIs), joint pain, body aches, low stamina, and low motivation.
Contrary to common belief, changes in memory are associated with natural aging, but no evidence links them to menopause, Slayden says. “Some women report foggy thinking and difficulty remembering during menopause. It could be that sleep issues are affecting brain function. Midlife stressors can also cause memory issues.”
Fortunately, women can choose many options to help ease menopausal symptoms including exercise, getting plenty of sleep, eating well, maintaining healthy weight, reducing stress, and not smoking. Avoiding or reducing sugar and alcohol consumption can help with sleep.
In addition to lifestyle changes, many treatment options also help ease perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms, such as dietary supplements, hormone replacement therapy, antidepressant medication, and other non-hormonal drug therapies. “The first line of treatment should be lifestyle changes/modifications and then medication if the symptoms become so bothersome they interrupt your normal life,” Slayden advises.
It’s important during this stage of life for women to stay healthy and take care of themselves as much as they care for others, Slayden says. Relaxation, meditation, yoga, massage, leisurely baths, or taking slow, deep abdominal breaths can help reduce hot flashes. “Choose something fun to do and stay active.”
Stigmas once led women to believe that the quality of their live wanes after menopause. But many women now find that menopause is actually the beginning of a strong, confident phase, Slayden says.
“Some positive things associated with menopause are a sense of freedom with no longer having to worry about birth control, premenstrual syndrome symptoms, or menstrual problems. At this stage of life, children are also getting older, and you are able to pursue more professional and personal ambitions. Many women report feeling empowered with a greater sense of confidence.”