Menopause is the stage of womanhood that marks the end of fertility. For many women, the physical and hormonal changes that form the hallmark of this phase can be challenging. Like every other natural phase in life, menopause affects each woman differently; therefore, it is important to gain a good understanding about the science behind it and discover menopause facts. Understanding the menopause facts below will help you to know what is happening inside your body at this time in your life.
The word “menopause” is made of two parts – ‘meno’ indicating menstruation, and the word pause. Simply put, menopause is defined as occurring when your period has stopped for over a year. The average age of menopause is 51 in the US; however, it can happen to some women earlier or later.
In the following video, Intimina’s Medical Advisory Board Member and Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner Susan Wysocki explains what menopause is, and what the main symptoms of menopause are.
The role of the ovaries
The ovaries are a pair of organs that are located in the pelvis, one on each side of our uterus. Each ovary is about the size and shape of an almond. Women are born with a large number of eggs (ovum), which are stored in the ovaries and each month, your ovaries release eggs to be fertilized.
The ovaries also secrete the hormones estrogen and progesterone, which are essential for the regulation of menstruation and ovulation.
- Estrogen: Responsible for our womanly appearance (breasts, underarm or pubic hair, etc.), estrogen helps maintain skin elasticity and muscle tone
- Progesterone: Prepares your body for pregnancy and breastfeeding. At menopause, the ovaries stop releasing eggs, resulting in your inability to have children. In addition, your body produces significantly lower levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone and this is what leads to the physical changes in your body.
1. Premenopause / Perimenopause: Also known as menopause transition, this is the stage which begins several years before menopause, when your ovaries gradually begin to produce less estrogen. It usually occurs in a woman’s 40s, but has also been known to start earlier. The most common symptom at this stage is menstrual irregularity. Some women also begin to experience menopause-like symptoms such as hot flashes, insomnia, vaginal dryness and mood swings. This phase may last between two to eight years.
2. Menopause: The point of your life where it’s been a year since your last period. At this point, your ovaries have stopped releasing eggs and producing most of their estrogen. Menopause can also be brought about by surgery, such as hysterectomy; or damage to the ovaries, such as that sustained from chemotherapy.
3. Postmenopause: These are the years after menopause. At this phase, your body has already undergone the physical and hormonal changes brought about by menopause, and you are now adjusting to the new you. At postmenopause, the intensity of some of the bothersome symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes and mood swings, gradually eases.
Understanding the main symptoms of menopause
- Irregular periods: At perimenopause, you will start to notice your periods becoming increasingly irregular. Your menstrual cycle may be longer or shorter, and eventually stop altogether, signifying you have reached menopause.
- Hot flashes: Probably the most common symptom of all! This is a sudden feeling of warmth that spreads over the upper body and is sometimes accompanied by sweating. Caused by the fluctuating estrogen levels, they strike unexpectedly, usually at night and last from several seconds to minutes. To learn more about managing hot flashes, please see our article The Best Ways to Relieve Hot Flashes During Menopause.
- Insomnia: This usually affects women during perimenopause, and can be due to many reasons, from hormonal to lifestyle changes. The fluctuations in progesterone levels, which is also known as a sleep-promoting hormone, and the reduced levels of estrogen may make you more sensitive to environmental and other factors/distractions; this therefore disrupts sleep.
- Emotional changes: The change in hormone levels, plus the stress of all the changes happening to you and your body can sometimes lead to depression and mood swings. In fact, about 20% of women will experience depression during menopause and many cases have been linked to loss of estrogen.
- Joint and muscle aches and pains: This could be due to a combination of aging as well as reduced levels of estrogen in the body. Estrogen is known to have anti-inflammatory effects in the body, and the reduced levels of this hormone during menopause decreases your body’s ability to absorb pain, thereby resulting in increased feelings of joint pain in some women.
- Vaginal dryness: Up to 1 in 3 women experiences this while going through menopause. During menopause, the drop in estrogen levels results in a loss of moisture, and your vaginal walls become thinner and less elastic. The North American Menopause Society [NAMS] recommends using an intimate moisturizer as the first treatment effort. This can be the quickest, most straight-forward remedy for replenishing moisture in the vagina, relieving discomfort and easing intimate activities.
- Urinary incontinence: As estrogen also plays an important role in maintaining muscle tone, the reduced levels of this hormone during menopause can result in the weakening of the pelvic muscles responsible for bladder control.
Today, our increasing understanding of menopause and the greater availability of medical and holistic treatments makes the management of many of these symptoms relatively easy and effective. Kegel exercises are an ideal way to strengthen your pelvic muscles. Remember to always consult your doctor before starting on any treatment or if you have any questions or concerns regarding your symptoms.
One of the key roles of your doctors is to be there for you and help you through menopause in the best way possible. Your doctor is also there to accurately answer the question, “Am I really going through menopause?”
Two simple tests that can accurately confirm menopause and also determine what stage of menopause you’re at are:
- A blood test to determine your follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) levels. FSH is a key hormone involved in your reproductive system. An abnormally high FSH level in your blood is a sign that you are undergoing menopause.
- A pap smear to check for irregularities in your vaginal wall. Your gynecologist will carry out a pap smear to check for vaginal “atrophy”, which is the thinning of your vaginal wall. With menopause, the cells lining the vagina will also contain less estrogen than normal.
You are not alone
Menopause is no walk in the park, but it is natural process. Every woman is unique and goes through menopause in a different way. Remember, you are not alone in this and perhaps one of the best ways to handle some of the more bothersome symptoms of menopause is to have around you a good support system. A loved one who understands, or simply friends who are going through the same phase are great to have around and share stories with! With this and having greater understanding of the above menopause facts, menopause can be much more manageable.
Please note that advice offered by Intimina may not be relevant to your individual case. For specific concerns regarding your health, always consult your physician or other licensed medical practitioners.