Q: So, what exactly is menopause?
A: Menopause is a normal physiologic decline in the production of estrogen and progesterone from your ovaries marking the end of fertility. The average age for menopause in the US is approximately 51 years old, but can occur from your 40s to your late 50s. The first symptoms are usually changes in your period – either in timing, duration, or amount of flow. The next phase usually involves missed cycles and can go on for up to five years. Menopause is completed when you have had no menstrual cycles for at least 12 months. The type, duration, and intensity of menopausal symptoms can be completely different for every woman. These symptoms usually start during the perimenopause and will improve over time with the most common symptoms being:
- Hot flashes
- Excessive and or sudden perspiration, especially at night
- Sleep disturbances
- Dry skin
- Vaginal discomfort
- Decreased libido
- Difficulty maintaining weight
- Mood swings
There are many things that you can do to better adjust through this life transition:
- Exercise at least 30 minutes a day, three times a week. A consultation with a fitness professional can help you choose the right activities.
- Maintain a balanced diet. Seek advice from your health care provider or nutritionist to uncover any food allergies as this can also trigger hot flashes. Choose fresh, non-processed foods and drink plenty of water for adequate hydration. Decrease sugar and salt intake and be careful of late night eating as this can cause weight gain and acid reflux.
- Get rid of those toxic habits – cigarette smoking, alcohol in excess and overuse of prescription and nonprescription medications.
- Get adequate sleep (this can be very challenging during the menopause), but some general helpful hints are decreasing caffeine and alcohol use. Keep your bedroom temperature cool and try to follow a pre-sleep relaxing ritual. Also, try to get to sleep at about the same time each night.
- Vaginal discomfort – there are many over the counter water based lubricants which can be helpful and inexpensive without long-term risk.
- Dress in layers.
- Learn to control your stress. Stress is a major trigger for hot flashes. Techniques such as tai chi, deep breathing exercises, massage and guided imagery are helpful.
Hormone replacement therapy can be an effective method of treatment. However, it is important to seek the advice of your gynecologist before starting.
Lisa Lewis-Neal, MD, is a board-certified obstetrician, gynecologist and surgeon at Newton Medical Center.