Menopause signals the end of the childbearing years for women and the beginning of a new period of life. While some women pass through this phase with only mild discomfort, others find the transition anything but smooth.
The beginning of this process is called perimenopause, which typically begins in the 40s and ends in the early 50s, lasting from one to ten years. However, every woman is different and ages will vary. A woman is not considered to be in menopause until one year has passed since her last menstrual period.
Perimenopause is often accompanied by symptoms such as hot flashes, night sweats, irregular periods, difficulty sleeping, vaginal and urinary problems, mood changes and other issues — such as forgetfulness, weight gain, hair loss or unwanted hair growth, and body aches or stiffness.
While the process is normal and does not require medical treatment, some women may wish to see a healthcare professional for relief of uncomfortable symptoms. The Office on Women’s Health, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, offers advice on managing some of the more common symptoms of menopause, such as hot flashes, vaginal dryness, mood swings, memory issues and urinary incontinence.
* Avoid things that may trigger a flash — such as spicy foods, caffeine, alcohol, stress or environments with high temperatures.
* Keep a fan at home or at work for when hot flashes may occur.
* Dress in layers that you can remove if you feel a hot flash coming on.
* If symptoms are severe, your healthcare provider may prescribe low-dose oral contraceptives, Menopausal Hormone Therapy (MHT) or other medications.
* Over-the-counter vaginal lubricants and moisturizers can help.
* MHT can be prescribed for severe dryness.
* Staying physically active and getting a good night’s rest can improve your mood.
* Recognize stress and learn coping mechanisms for it, such as organizing tasks into manageable lists; setting limits and boundaries; stretching regularly; taking time for yourself; maintaining social contacts; getting tense muscles massaged; and seeking professional help if needed.
* If you experience depression, seek medical assistance from your healthcare team. Depression is a serious illness that can be treated.
* MHT can also help to improve mood.
* Regular exercise along with getting a sufficient amount of sleep can help with memory. If forgetfulness is causing serious issues in your daily life, see your provider.
* Speak to your provider about finding the right treatment, which may include behavioral changes, medication, medical devices or surgery.
You may also experience changes in appearance associated with menopause and/or aging. Here are tips to help you cope.
Many women gain weight around the same time they experience menopause or perimenopause, or find that it’s increasingly difficult to maintain the same weight or to lose weight. According to experts at the Mayo Clinic, this may have less to do with menopause than the normal aging process, as well as genetic and lifestyle factors.
As we age, muscle mass decreases while fat increases and our need for calories decreases slightly. The Mayo Clinic advises women who wish to reduce or prevent excess weight gain during this period to increase physical activity and to eat a more healthful diet — including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, foods high in fiber and healthy proteins, such as soy, meat, fish, chicken, nuts and legumes. Reducing alcohol and sugar intake will also help to control weight gain.
Hair: Loss, Thinning and Unwanted Growth
Estrogen and progesterone help hair to grow and to remain fuller longer. When levels drop during menopause, hair may grow more slowly and begin to thin.
Steps to reduce hair loss include using a good conditioner that promotes healthy hair growth and avoiding the use of curling irons, blowdryers or straighteners, which can weaken hair or cause it to break. Wearing a swim cap while in a swimming pool will also help to protect hair from damage due to chlorine. Drying hair, which many women do at this age due to graying, can also damage hair if harsh chemicals are involved, so ask your colorist or pharmacist about using natural color products.
Androgens — which are male hormones — can also increase during menopause, causing hair to grow on a woman’s face and in other unwanted areas. Ridding yourself of unwanted hair — on the upper lip, for example — can be done by waxing, laser treatments, tweezing, threading or with a variety of over-the-counter hair-removal creams and other products.
Hormonal changes during menopause can also lead to skin changes, such as increased breakouts, loss of elasticity and an increase in wrinkles. Women who smoke and those with sun damage may experience more dramatic increases in wrinkles. Moisturizers and other skincare products — such as vitamin A (retinol) and vitamin C creams — can help build collagen in the skin, to reduce the aging process.