This post is sponsored by HCA Midwest Health.
Some women fear menopause because of symptoms like hot flashes, vaginal dryness, sleep problems and decreased sex drive. But there is some good news: There are effective ways to relieve symptoms.
1. No two women will have the same experience
As with pregnancy and menstruation, no two women will experience menopause at the same time with the same symptoms. Likewise, no two sets of treatments will work the same way, either.
Your symptoms may be different from your friend’s and what works for her may not work for you. Also, you may not have the same experience that your mom did either, because treatments for symptoms are evolving.
While it can be helpful to talk through the ins and outs of the menopause experience with friends and family, just remember that it’s unlikely your experiences will be identical.
2. The cause of menopause onset varies
Menopause is most often a natural process and the average age of menopause onset is 52. That said, it’s also common for women to experience the changes prematurely after surgeries like hysterectomies (removal of the uterus) and oophorectomies (removal of the ovaries). Chemotherapy or radiation to treat certain cancers may damage the ovaries and decrease the production of ovarian hormones, bringing about early menopause. Other causes of early-onset menopause include:
- Certain health conditions like autoimmune diseases (such as rheumatoid arthritis), thyroid disease, HIV/AIDS or chronic fatigue syndrome
- Chromosomal abnormalities
Although it’s common for early onset menopause to occur in conjunction with these procedures or health conditions, menopause can also arrive early for no apparent reason.
3. Perimenopause can bring major symptoms, too
Natural menopause is a consecutive year without a period, but you may experience changes in your period well before that. This stage is called perimenopause, or menopausal transition.
Some people may skip a few periods here and there, then have a period, then have three in a row, then skip three months. During the time they’re not having regular periods, they can have symptoms of menopause.
Estrogen levels rise and fall irregularly during perimenopause and that’s why your periods may be shorter or longer. You may notice symptoms that are associated with menopause during this time, such as hot flashes, sleep issues and vaginal dryness. Heavy or prolonged bleeding may be a sign you’re going through perimenopause, too. Perimenopause occurs at different ages but can start as early as your mid-thirties. On average, it lasts up to four years until you enter menopause.
4. You can relieve menopause symptoms
Menopause can bring a slew of not-so-enjoyable symptoms like night sweats, sleeping problems, vaginal dryness, mood swings, hair loss and trouble concentrating. And if you’re wondering what the most common symptom is, its hot flashes, by far—experienced by up to 80 percent of women.
Treatment options aren’t going to stop menopause, but they can help relieve some of the symptoms. For women who are still having periods or going through perimenopause, low-dose hormonal birth control may help.
With hormone therapy, you’ll get prescriptions for two or three hormones that are usually produced by the ovaries—estrogen and progesterone. Different types of hormone therapy are recommended depending on certain factors. For example, women without a uterus are typically prescribed estrogen only, while those with a uterus usually take estrogen and progestin.
Although, major health organizations like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the North American Menopause Society say that hormone therapy is safe for most women, there are some risks. Talk with your OB/GYN about the risks and the benefits. Some methods, for example, slightly increase the risk of uterine cancer, breast cancer, heart attack, stroke or gallbladder disease.
Some doctors may also recommend herbal remedies such as red clover, dong quai, vitamin E and black cohosh. ACOG studies show they’re not necessarily effective, but I think they are worth a shot for some women who don’t want to use typical hormone replacement therapy. Talk to your OB/GYN before taking any supplements, since some of them present safety concerns for certain people.
5. It may affect your bone and heart health
Post-menopausal women may have an increased risk for certain health conditions like osteoporosis and heart disease. But why?
Estrogen, the hormone that your ovaries normally produce, helps build strong bones. When your ovaries stop producing that hormone, you may have some bone loss.
Women who are already at risk for bone loss, like those who smoke, have thyroid disease or are on the thinner side don’t have as much bone density to start out with so their risk is higher. If you’ve gone through menopause, aim to get 1,200 milligrams of calcium per day. Foods like raw tofu, low-fat yogurt, milk, leafy green vegetables and fortified cereals are great sources of calcium.
Post-menopausal women are also at increased risk for heart disease. As your estrogen levels drop, your risk for heart disease is going to go up. Estrogen helps keep blood vessels flexible and encourages proper blood flow. During menopause, it’s also possible that rising blood pressure and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels play a role in heart disease risk.
Researchers are working to learn more about the connection between menopause and heart disease, but in the meantime, a healthy diet and regular exercise will help keep your ticker strong. The American Heart Association recommends eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, fish, lean meat and nuts and limiting your intake of red meat and sugary foods and drinks.
6. Irregular bleeding is a red flag
Whether or not you’re around the age of menopause onset, irregular bleeding warrants a doctor visit. Any type of increased bleeding is something that needs to be checked out.
Monitoring heavy bleeding is especially important if you think you’re going through menopause. As our hormone levels decrease, our bleeding should decrease. If your periods are very heavy—they last more than seven days, you soak through one or more tampon or pad per hour or your menstrual flow’s blood clots are bigger than a quarter – please come see us!
You should also visit the doctor if your period is occurring more than every three weeks. Heavy periods or too frequent periods may signal a larger health issue like fibroids (non-cancerous growths that develop from uterine tissue), polyps (non-cancerous growths of tissue similar to the endometrium that grow on the uterine wall or endometrial surface), endometriosis (endometrium tissue that grows somewhere outside of the uterus) or uterine cancers.
7. There are some positive benefits of menopause
While, there are certainly some not-so-pleasant side effects of “the big M,” there are some potential positives. After all, menopause is a time of aging and change, which means you can look forward to a developed sense of confidence and appreciate the life experience you’ve earned. You can even use this opportunity to set new goals for the next chapters of your life. Focusing your attention away from some of the symptoms and instead toward some of the positives might help change your perspective.
First, it may help to set aside any negativity you’ve heard about the transition. It may also help to keep a gratitude journal. Try writing down three things you’re grateful for every night.
Next, it’s important that you take care of yourself. While you may not feel your best every day, make sure to squeeze in some time for things that make you feel happy and relaxed. That could simply mean meeting a friend for a morning yoga class, winding down at night with a warm bath or treating yourself to a blowout, just because.
Lastly, remember to stay connected to loved ones. Although your friends or family members may not be experiencing the same changes you are, try to connect with someone else who is. Talking with those who’ve gone through or are going through what you are can help put your mind at ease. Not to mention, having a strong social network may help you live longer.
8. It’s OK (and safe) to seek help
We don’t want you to suffer from menopause symptoms because you’re afraid of something. Many women shy away from seeing their doctor for fear that hormone therapies will cause breast cancer or other issues. Breast cancer is so prevalent in our society that the risk alone from hormone replacement therapy is small compared to the baseline risk of breast cancer. Quality of life is very important, so please talk with your gynecologists when perimenopause and menopause happen.
Laura Parks, M.D., is a board-certified OB/GYN with Town Plaza Women’s Health – a part of HCA Midwest Health.
Whether your daughter just got her first period or you are dealing with menopause, the specialists at HCA Midwest Health are here to safeguard your long-term health. Find an OB/GYN or midwife at hcamidwest.com.