Menopause 101: How a Shift in Hormone Levels Can Impact Your Health
Medically Reviewed by Madeline Hubbard, RN, BSN
Menopause refers to a stage in an individual’s life when hormone levels naturally change, which can trigger a whole host of physical and emotional effects. It is important to realize that menopause is a biological process — just like puberty. To that end, it’s not a disease or condition to be cured, but, rather, a change in the body, which is why it has often been referred to as the “change of life.”
Menopause marks the end of menstruation and menstrual cycles and, post-menopause, a person is no longer able to bear a child. Moreover, a person is considered to be in menopause one year after their last period. Nonetheless, it’s important to note that menopause is a transitional time that can last between 7 and 14 years, typically occurring when a person is in their 40s or 50s. On average, most people in the United States experience the onset of menopause around age 51.
Symptoms Associated With Menopause
There are many common symptoms that can be associated with menopause, both physical and emotional. These symptoms might begin in the months or years leading up to menopause — also known as the perimenopause period — while periods are still taking place, and they usually continue in the year after a person’s final menstrual cycle.
While some people may not experience any symptoms at all during their menopause transition, others may notice some or all of the following:
- Irregular or skipped periods (Note: Pregnancy can still occur even if periods are no longer happening monthly.)
- Hot flashes or chills
- Night sweats
- Sleep disturbances
- Changes in mood as well as irritability, depression, or anxiety
- Difficulty concentrating
- Slowed metabolism
- Hair loss and dry skin
- Bladder control problems or urinary urgency
- Vaginal dryness
- Changes in libido (sex drive)
- Loss of breast fullness
- Racing heartbeat
- Muscle and joint aches
What Causes Menopause & What Are the Long-Term Effects?
Menopause is caused by a natural decline in hormone production over time. Starting in one’s late 30s or early 40s, ovaries begin to produce less and less estrogen and progesterone. These hormones are responsible for menstruation and ovulation, so, when their levels decrease, the body no longer receives signals to have a period or release an egg each month.
There are other possible causes for menopause as well. Chemotherapy and radiation can cause damage to the ovaries and bring about menopause either temporarily or permanently. Surgical intervention such as a hysterectomy, in which the uterus and/or ovaries are removed, will also bring about menopause.
Another rare cause of menopause 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.
Menopause brings about an increased risk for a number of health complications related to changing hormone levels. Those who have gone through menopause may be advised to take additional supplements or medications to prevent or reduce the risk of these conditions.
- Osteoporosis (bone density decrease and risk of fractures)
- Heart disease (related to blood pressure and cholesterol levels)
- Urge or stress incontinence (involuntary urination)
Typically, menopause can be identified by its symptoms when they occur at the expected stage of life. No further testing is needed for diagnosis. However, if symptoms of menopause occur earlier in life, a healthcare professional may order tests to assess other possible hormonal causes. This may include blood testing to check follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) or thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH), as changes in these hormone levels can mimic menopause symptoms.
How to Treat & Manage the Symptoms Associated With Menopause
Menopause does not require treatment, as it is a natural process. That said, if symptoms are disruptive there are options available to ease the transition. Treatment options include:
- Hormone Therapy (HT): A supplement of estrogen or progesterone, or both, can be administered by pill, transdermal patch or injection. HT works to relieve hot flashes and reduce the risk of bone loss in development of osteoporosis. Long term hormone therapy does come with associated risks related to breast cancer, blood clots and stroke. It is important to discuss the safety of hormone therapy with your healthcare provider.
- Vaginal Estrogen: To address vaginal dryness, estrogen can also be inserted directly into the vagina in the form of a cream, ring, or tablet.
- Antidepressants: Certain medications can help address mood disruptions and may also decrease uncomfortable hot flashes.
- Supplements: Healthcare providers may recommend supplements that support bone strength and prevent fracture, or discuss bioidentical or plant-based supplements that mimic hormone therapy.
There are also several things you can do at home to help relieve or reduce the symptoms of menopause:
- Temperature Regulation: Dress in layers and carry a cold water bottle to prepare for hot flashes. Be aware that hot weather, spicy foods, hot drinks, caffeine, alcohol, and cigarettes can all trigger hot flashes.
- Pelvic Floor Exercises: Working to strengthen the muscles of the pelvic floor may improve urinary incontinence over time.
- Vaginal Lubrication: Over-the-counter water or silicone-based lubricants and moisturizers are available to help relieve discomfort related to vaginal dryness.
- Sleep and Relaxation: Stress can worsen menopause symptoms, so do your best to get enough sleep, and try practicing relaxation exercises like deep breathing when feeling an increase in stress.
- Exercise: Staying physically active can help support your heart muscles, bones, and joints as they go through changes associated with menopause.
Next Steps for People Experiencing Menopause
Many people approach menopause with a sense of trepidation. The end of the child-bearing years can bring a profound sense of loss, especially if a person wanted to have more children and wasn’t able to do so. For this reason, some people may 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.
However, menopause doesn’t have to be a miserable experience. With proper treatment, you can find symptom relief and ensure that you reduce your risk of developing any complications during this natural life transition.