Menopause 101: Your Guide to Optimal Health
For a good portion of our life, menopause seems hundreds of years away. And then, all of a sudden, we’re smack in the middle of it. Despite the fact that we all know we’ll go through menopause eventually, it sneaks up on many of us and the changes that occur in our bodies can have us on our heels.
If this is you, don’t worry—you’re definitely not alone. Keep reading for what you need to know about menopause and post-menopause, including what’s happening to your hormones and how you can maintain optimal health at every age.
Menopause: When, How & Why
The average age of natural menopause in Western societies is around 51, but many women start to experience perimenopausal symptoms—like irregular periods and hot flashes—long before that. Once you’ve gone 12 consecutive months without a period, you’re officially in menopause and will remain in it for the rest of your life, an era also commonly described as “post-menopause.”
Many of us assume menopause means we are destined to feel tired, unwell, and just deflated for years on end. But is that really true? According to Dr. Eva Selhub, M.D., a physician and lecturer in medicine at Harvard Medical School, “It’s not true that women need to simply grin and bear the symptoms of aging. Both new science and old healing modalities offer a lot of options.”
Symptoms of Perimenopause & Menopause
It would be nice to be able to sort the symptoms of perimenopause, menopause, and post-menopause into neat categories, but the truth is that every woman experiences this transition very differently. “The experience can vary from individual to individual as well as across ethnic and cultural groups and across different countries and regions of the world,” says Dr. Anna M. Barbieri, M.D., an OB/GYN at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
That said, the research does show some patterns and trends. As a general rule, the symptoms we typically associate with menopause are actually experienced by most women during late perimenopause, peaking one or two years before menopause actually occurs. According to the Cleveland Clinic, these include:
Hot flashes (a sudden feeling of warmth that spreads over the body)
Night sweats and/or cold flashes
Vaginal dryness; discomfort during sex
Urinary urgency (a pressing need to urinate more frequently)
Difficulty sleeping (insomnia)
Emotional changes (irritability, mood swings, mild depression)
Dry skin, dry eyes or dry mouth
The good news is that once you’ve gone a full 12 months without a period, you typically experience a reduction in these uncomfortable symptoms. In menopause, the ovaries have stopped releasing eggs and ceased producing most of their estrogen. The bad news is that you’re now at an increased risk for developing certain illnesses, like heart disease and osteoporosis, which means it’s more important now than ever before to make healthy diet and lifestyle choices.
Treatments For Perimenopause & Menopause
Unless a woman goes through early menopause or “sudden” menopause for medical reasons—such as having their ovaries surgically removed—she will spend a third of her life in her post-menopausal years. One-third of your life is a long time, so it’s important to find treatments that work for you. Some symptoms may be unavoidable, but you can find ways to optimize your health during this time.
Hormone replacement therapy, a group of medications that contain female hormones to replace the ones your body is no longer producing, is one of the most effective therapies for menopause. However, these medications have pros and cons; they can effectively treat hot flashes, vaginal discomfort, and have also been shown to prevent bone loss and fractures but research has also connected them to an increased risk of breast cancer and blood clots. According to Mayo Clinic, these risks depend on many factors, including the women’s health history, the type of hormone therapy, the dose, and how long the medication is taken. When taken the right way, the benefits of hormone therapies can outweigh the cons. Still, hormone therapy can provide much relief and much benefit to many women. It is a complex decision that is worthwhile exploring based on your individual symptoms, goals, and health history.
A Lifestyle Approach To Perimenopause & Menopause
If you’re looking to temper the symptoms of menopause and post-menopause, lifestyle changes are paramount. This is especially true if you are not a candidate for hormone therapy. The good news is that lifestyle changes are often effective and can even eliminate your need for medication altogether. According to Dr. Selhub, “Hormones are very much affected by your mood, stress levels, sleep, exercise, and nutrition.” This is particularly true when it comes to nutrition, as studies have found that a diet high in vegetables and fruits is inversely correlated with menopausal symptoms.
Dr. Selhub, an expert in resilience, also points out that mindfulness can better help you cope with symptoms, explaining: ‘We know that meditation and mindfulness can help manage stress and the psychological symptoms associated with menopause. These techniques may not necessarily change the physical symptoms, but allow one to manage them better without distress.”
The good news is that it doesn’t matter if you’re years away from perimenopause, at menopause, or already post-menopausal. Leaning hard on healthy lifestyle changes can greatly improve your symptoms, energy levels, and overall health.
Alongside nutrition, physical activity, sleep, and mind-body interventions such as meditation, there are a number of botanical and supplement solutions that can be helpful. Soy isoflavones, black cohosh, vitamin B6 and a number of other compounds can be used during this time period. Like hormone therapy however, some can have some risks and interact with medications, so it is important to carefully evaluate your options.
Finally, there are also non-hormonal prescription options, including some antidepressants, that can be used for severe symptoms, especially for women who cannot or do not wish to try hormonal therapies.