We have all heard the horror stories; the night sweats, the treacherous mood swings, the hot flashes. One has to wonder, just what did we women do to deserve all of this punishment? Isn’t it bad enough that we have to suffer our monthly “friend?” By the way, whoever nicknamed menstruation our “friend” was clearly an idiot, or male. But, I digress. The question of the day is what can we expect during menopause? Is it always as horrible as people say it is? Is there anything we can do to ease our burden? Let’s explore.
What Are the Symptoms?
Menopause symptoms come in many different flavors, and they vary from woman to woman. There are however a few symptoms that are almost universal:
A hot flash is the body’s response to our decreasing estrogen levels. It can be felt as a subtle warming, slowing rising up and over your entire body; or it can be a raging fire from the depths, consuming your entire body. Unfortunately, either way, this reaction is completely normal and more than 50% of women going through menopause suffer from hot flashes.
Night sweats occur for the same reason as their close friend, the hot flash, and cause extreme nighttime perspiration and discomfort. They are clinically called nocturnal hyperhydrosis. Nocturnal meaning “night”, hyper meaning “too much” and hydrosis meaning “water condition.”
Loss of Sex Drive
Again, due to the hormonal changes in our bodies, we may experience a loss of libido. The key to getting through this is to be open and honest with your partner about the reasons you may not be feeling so sexy these days.
The main cause of menstrual irregularities of any type is a hormonal imbalance. In menopause, we can attribute this, once again, to our good friend estrogen and its decreasing levels in our system. You may experience periods more frequently or less; and they may be heavier or lighter.
Yes, we have a drought in our vagina to look forward to. Along with the loss of moisture, comes a loss in elasticity as well. You may be more likely to get vaginal infections, and having sex may become a pain, literally.
It is very likely that you may experience the equivalent of an emotional pendulum once menopause hits. You could be prone to tears and angry outbursts for no apparent reason, and believe it or not, it’s a normal symptom of menopause.
Have you ever experienced that all consuming fatigue right before the onset of menstruation? If so then you will be right at home with this symptom of menopause. It’s that hit the snooze 10 times, need to take a long nap in the afternoon, crash out on the sofa in the evening kind of exhaustion that only we women know.
The Stages of Menopause
The symptoms of menopause can begin as early as your 30’s or 40’s. Symptoms like the hot flashes and night sweats are common early on in a period called perimenopause. Perimenopause is the stage that many women go through before hitting full-fledged menopause. It usually happens four or five years prior to the onset of menopause, but in some women, it happens much earlier.
Actual menopause usually begins in your 40’s or 50’s, when it occurs naturally. Surgical menopause occurs when a woman needs to have a hysterectomy and a bilateral oophorectomy, which means that both ovaries have been removed. Women who go through surgical menopause have a far worse time than those who go through it naturally. Their body is thrown into a hormonal imbalance, instead of eased into it and this can make the symptoms much more severe.
Most doctors consider you to be in post menopause a full year after the menstrual cycle has ceased to occur. During post menopause you can look forward to a lessening or complete eradication of the symptoms.
Is There Help for Menopausal Symptoms?
Some symptoms and risks of menopause cannot be helped, but according to WebMD, a well-balanced and healthy diet can go a long way towards helping to curb some of the symptoms. The key to a well-balanced diet for menopause is eating a variety of different types of foods. Foods that include calcium, iron, and fiber are always a good bet. Make sure you eat foods that are high in fiber such as whole grain breads and pastas, cereals and rice. You need about 20 grams of fiber a day in order to give your body enough to work with. Fruits and vegetables are essential to a well-balanced diet, and though we already know that, sometimes we need a little reminder of just how many servings we need. Three to five servings is a good amount to aim for, so go ahead and grab that handful of grapes to munch on while you’re sitting at your desk and do yourself a favor.
Hydrate. Your body is mostly comprised of water, and as such, when you are suffering from your hot flashes, or night sweats, that water needs to be replaced. Drink at least six 8oz glasses of water a day, more if you exercise or sweat excessively. In addition to drinking plenty of water, you should reduce your salt intake and caffeine intake as well, to reduce the chances of dehydration. Another valuable tip would be to try avoiding caffeine, spicy foods and alcohol as much as possible, because avoiding them can reduce the severity of your hot flashes.
Isoflavones are a form of plant derived estrogen that some say can help the effects of the decreased estrogen levels in your body during menopause. The most common place that isoflavones can be found is in soy products. Please be careful with this knowledge and even consult your physician because some studies have found that isoflavones can cause a decrease in the immune system activity of mice.
Calcium and Vitamin D: A Helpful Combination
Osteoporosis, unfortunately, has a high probability of developing during menopause because of the correlation between estrogen and the retention of calcium in the bones. Again, a healthy diet (do you see a pattern here?) along with dietary supplements, as directed by your doctor, can help save your bones. If you are in need of a calcium supplement, your doctor will probably recommend that you take it along with Vitamin D to aid in absorption.
Menopause and Weight Gain
Weight gain isn’t a given, during menopause. However, it happens more often than not because menopausal women are usually less active. In addition, muscles tend to lose their mass when people get older. This leads to weight gain around the tummy, rather than the other female weight gain hot spots.
A healthier diet and a regular workout schedule that includes cardio and light weight lifting can help combat these weight gain issues during menopause, as well as strengthen your heart. Try taking up a yoga class with your girlfriends, or buy a bike and start biking when you run your local errands instead of jumping in the car. Little efforts like that can make a huge difference.
Hormone Therapy: Yes or No?
It used to be that hormone therapy was a standard form of treatment for women suffering the effects of menopause. That was before a clinical trial revealed a correlation between hormone replacement therapy and an increase in heart disease, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, blood clots and stroke. There are some benefits, besides the obvious relief, to hormone therapy. It has been proven to guard against the loss of bone mass and osteoporosis, and it can decrease the risk of colorectal cancer.
Hormone therapy is no longer used as a long term solution for the effects of menopause, but it is sometimes used for short term relief of its symptoms during the active menopausal years. Don’t fret if you think that hormone therapy isn’t for you, there are natural alternatives out there. Soy products, as mentioned before, are isoflavones that contain estrogen. Don quai and black cohash are plans that are also known to contain estrogen-like properties. However, as with any type of therapy, you should consult your physician before making any decisions.
So, What Can We Do?
Contrary to popular belief, menopause doesn’t have to mean the end of the world. Sure, it’s rough and nobody really wants to go through it but, it’s a fact of life and you can either let it bring you down, or you can take control of your life and keep on living it.
You are still the same sensual, feminine being you were before all this, and you will continue to be so afterwards. The best thing you can do for yourself, aside from all of the medical advice being slung at you from left, right and center, is to take time for you. Do not lose yourself. Menopause is happening to you, but it doesn’t define who you are.