Acknowledging the symptoms, easing concerns, and accepting change
It’s no secret ladies: As women age, changes to our bodies and appearance start to come on gradually.
Is that a gray hair?
Where did that wrinkle come from?
Why does my body feel so achy?
The answers to these questions are usually not easy to accept and often times, scary to think about. But beyond the gray hairs and extra wrinkles, many women grow concerned about the thought of entering menopause, especially after the age of 40. It’s something all women will go through, but something most are not comfortable discussing.
Red Hot Mamas
Become an active participant in the management of your menopausal transition by getting answers and information you need! Carilion Clinic offers the nation’s largest menopause education program in the New River Valley, Roanoke, and Franklin County. For a schedule of events or more information, visit CarilionClinic.org.
“It’s important for women to know they don’t have to suffer or go through this life change alone,” said Edie Naughton, a Carilion Clinic community health educator.
Menopause occurs when a woman’s ovaries no longer produce an egg every month and menstruation stops. The average age when women experience menopause is around age 51, but many women start the process years earlier. For most women, the process is gradual and happens in three stages:
- Perimenopause typically begins several years before menopause, when the ovaries gradually produce less estrogen. During this time, a woman’s progesterone is likely to fluctuate more than before, which can lead to inconsistent ovulation or heavy menstrual bleeding.
- Menopause is the point typically when it’s been 12 months since a woman has her last menstrual period.
- Postmenopause happens in the years after menopause when symptoms ease, but health risks related to loss of estrogen increase as women age.
There is a wide range of symptoms when it comes to menopause. Because of this, many women aren’t sure, or can be in denial, about their body’s changes. But 80 percent of menopausal women will experience a variety of symptoms.
“The most common symptom is the hot flash,” said Christopher Marengo, M.D., a Carilion Clinic OB/GYN. “The hot flash starts in the face and chest as intense heat and then radiates throughout the body for about four to five minutes. While hot flashes only last a short time, they can significantly interfere with a woman’s quality of life.”
“Another common symptom that is often not discussed openly by women is vaginal dryness,” Naughton said. “You just don’t hear about it. But vaginal dryness, along with decreased libido, is very common. What women don’t realize is they are not alone in dealing with these symptoms.”
Other symptoms include insomnia, mood swings, depression, irritability, headaches, and bladder control problems.
“Not all women will experience significant symptoms,” said Jorge Garcia, M.D., a Carilion Clinic OB/GYN. “As many as 40 percent say they are not significantly bothered by symptoms. And if you are experiencing significant symptoms, remember they won’t last forever.”
Many women are scared by menopause because they are under the impression they can’t make the process easier on themselves. This is not true.
“This biggest misconception is that women think nothing can be done to alleviate the symptoms or difficulties of perimenopause or menopause,” Naughton said. “But that’s simply not the case. It starts with having an open and honest discussion with your healthcare provider.”
Many of the symptoms can be lessened by living a healthy lifestyle, which includes regular exercise, a healthy diet, and not smoking.
“Another tip that is easy to adapt to any menopausal women’s lifestyle is to wear light clothing whenever possible,” Dr. Marengo said.
There is no “one size fits all” treatment for menopause. Each woman’s needs are individualized. That’s why talking with your doctor about what you are feeling and experiencing is important.
“A great treatment for some women is hormone replacement therapy (HRT),” Dr. Garcia said. “Usually a low dose, over a short period of time, can be quite effective in relieving symptoms, but there can be health risks related to long term HRT.”
Women can also try over-the-counter remedies like the herb black cohosh or flax seed.
“But I would recommend discussing any type of remedy with your OB/GYN before taking it to see if it could really help with the severity of your symptoms,” Dr. Marengo said.
Once a woman reaches the postmenopausal stage the risks for osteoporosis (bone loss) and heart disease increases. This is especially true in women who experience menopause earlier than 40 years of age.
Having an open discussion about changes to your body can help alleviate fears and keep women from needless suffering.
“The key to improving your life is arming yourself with knowledge and honestly discussing all aspects of menopausal symptoms with your healthcare provider,” Naughton said.
A great way to monitor and better understand possible symptoms of menopause is by keeping a symptom diary or calendar. Record your feelings and symptoms on a daily basis. Then when you meet with your healthcare provider it can become clearer what you are experiencing and easier to develop a treatment plan.
“This is a time in a woman’s life when she can finally take time for herself,” Naughton said.
Approximately 36 million American women will live more than one-third of their lives beyond the onset of menopause. So for women who look at this life stage negatively, it is important to realize there is support available and lots of ways to minimize the symptoms.
Laura Markowski is a writer in Carilion Clinic’s marketing communications department. She writes this monthly article on women’s health topics.