Menopause is a stage in a woman’s life where her body begins to change, and can trigger a whole host of physical and emotional effects. It’s important for women to realize that menopause is a natural biological process, just as puberty is. It is not a disease or condition to be cured, but rather a change in the body, which is why it has been referred to as the “change of life.”
Menopause is defined as a natural event in a woman’s life where she no longer menstruates and can no longer bear children. Typically a woman is considered to be in menopause one year after her last period, although in the case of women who have had their reproductive organs removed (hysterectomy), they will be considered to be in menopause at once since they physically no longer have the ability to have periods. The average age at which a woman goes through menopause in the United States is 51.
There are many common symptoms associated with menopause. These symptoms usually occur in the year after a woman’s final period, but before a woman is officially in menopause:
- Irregular periods (they could come closer together, though they will usually be further apart)
- Decreased fertility
- Vaginal dryness
- Hot flashes
- Sleep disturbances
- Mood swings
- Increased abdominal fat
- Hair loss
- Loss of breast fullness
- Racing heartbeat
- Bone and joint aches
- Bladder control problems
- Night sweats
- Emotional changes such as depression or anxiety
- Concentration or memory problems
A woman should see her doctor if she suspects that there is a problem with her normal monthly cycle. A doctor can rule out any actual medical problems that may be the cause, and offer treatment options to ease some of the symptoms she is experiencing.
Causes and Long Term Effects
Menopause is caused by the natural decline in hormone production that a woman experiences over time. Beginning in her late 30s or early 40s, a woman’s ovaries begin to produce less and less estrogen, and she begins to experience something called “perimenopause.” She will experience perimenopause for 8 to 10 years before menopause. This whole process is called natural menopause.
There are other causes for menopause as well. Chemotherapy and radiation can cause damage to the ovaries and bring about menopause. Surgical intervention, such as a hysterectomy, where all reproductive organs are removed will also bring about menopause.
Another cause of menopause, though it is very rare, is called premature ovarian insufficiency, or POI. This occurs when the ovaries stop producing hormones and releasing eggs prior to the age of 40. Anytime menopause occurs before the age of 45, it is considered premature menopause.
Over time women who have gone through menopause have an increased risk for a number of health problems. These include:
- Osteoporosis (bones become brittle leading to fractures)
- Heart disease
- Poor bladder and bowel function
- Poor skin elasticity
- Poor muscle tone or loss of muscle tone
- Deterioration in vision
Because of the risks of developing these conditions, women may be advised to take some additional supplements or medications to prevent or reduce the risk of these problems.
Treatment for menopause often includes hormone therapy (HT), especially if a woman is experiencing premature menopause. Hormone therapy is basically a supplement of estrogen or progesterone, or both, and it can be administered by pill, transdermal patch or injection. HT does reduce a woman’s risk of developing osteoporosis and a number of other problems associated with menopause, and while HT is a godsend to some, it does come with risks. The risks most associated with HT include the development of breast cancer, blood clots and stroke.
There are several natural therapies that have been effective in relieving some of the symptoms of menopause. These include soy supplements, as soy contains plant estrogens, vitamin and mineral supplements, and creams, all of which are readily available at most health food stores and pharmacies.
There are also herbal supplements that have been used by natural medical professionals for centuries to treat menopause. These include blue and black cohosh, evening primrose oil and flax. Scientific evidence as to the effectiveness of these products is inconclusive, but anecdotal evidence suggests that there are some benefits.
Many women approach menopause with a heavy heart and a sense of trepidation. The end of a woman’s child bearing years can bring a profound sense of loss, especially if she wanted to have more children and wasn’t able to. For this reason, women may also find it helpful to seek out a mental health professional to help them deal with the feelings of loss and depression that are not uncommon during menopause.
Menopause doesn’t have to be a miserable experience. With proper treatment, women can find symptom relief and ensure that they reduce their risk of developing any problems, allowing them to enjoy their golden years in comfort and good health.