We’ve all seen our sisters, mothers, and aunts go through it: the hot flashes, mood swings, and sleep deprivation. It’s called menopause — a natural, biological process ALL women go through where the ovaries no longer produce eggs and menstrual cycles stop. This can be a stressful time, as the body is going through significant changes, causing inconvenient side effects. Menopause, much like your menstrual cycle, starts at different ages for different women, but it’s typically in your 40s or 50s, with the average age being 51.
The Stages of Menopause
Before we dive into the symptoms of menopause, first let’s talk about the stages—perimenopause, menopause, and postmenopause. During perimenopause, the hormone production from a woman’s ovaries is declining. This may come as a shock, but women can experience perimenopausal symptoms for an average of four years. Typically, once you’ve skipped 12 menstrual cycles, you’re over the perimenopausal hump and officially menopausal.
After menopause, women experience what is called postmenopause. During this time, hormone levels remain at a constant low, the menstrual cycle has stopped, and the woman is no longer able to conceive.
This life-changing process is a natural part of aging and can be easily identified with the following common symptoms:
Lack of a Menstrual Cycle
One of the most obvious changes is a lack of a menstrual cycle. As your body begins reducing its hormone levels it is common to experience irregular cycles that vary in frequency and intensity. Missing one cycle does not mean you have reached menopause, but the absence of 12 cycles is considered menopause.
A hot flash during the perimenopause stage is not caused by any source outside of the body. Some women experience the sudden feeling of warmth without notice, while others feel it coming. During a hot flash, the skin may become red or blotchy and the body will begin to sweat. Hot flashes can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. Night sweats (hot flashes when sleeping) are often a symptom of perimenopause and are known to be an intense feeling of warmth that wakes a woman up due to the body sweating. The good news is that most women only experience these episodes leading up to menopause and they often subside when menopause is reached.
During the perimenopause stage, a woman’s hormone levels fluctuate quickly, causing drastic mood changes. This can cause a woman to become irritable, fatigued, and have difficulty focusing. As the hormone levels balance out when menopause is reached, these changes in mood or emotion go away.
Pain During Intercourse
Many women describe intercourse as becoming painful or uncomfortable during this stage of life. The cause of this pain is often dryness. As a woman’s estrogen levels lower, the tissue in the vagina can become dry. This dryness can add resistance during sex, causing discomfort. Using silicone and water-based lubricants or a vaginal moisturizer can reduce pain.
As a woman’s body produces fewer hormones such as estrogen and progesterone, daily lifestyle can be interrupted. Many women experience some level of insomnia or inadequate sleep. Insomnia is a symptom of menopause because progesterone is a sleep-producing hormone. Lack of proper sleep can lead to changes in mood and behavior.
The good news: many of these symptoms subside when menopause is reached. The bad news: these changes are inevitable and a part of being a woman. The symptoms we’ve discussed are all considered normal in the menopausal stages. If you are experiencing extreme symptoms we urge you to contact your healthcare provider.
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