Menopause isn’t an illness; it’s a natural stage of a woman’s life. Menopause is defined as occurring 12 months after your last menstrual period and marks the end of menstrual cycles. This transition in life can happen in your 40s or 50s, but the average age is 51 in the United States.
The hormone changes that happen around menopause affect every woman differently. Some changes that might start in the years around menopause include:
Irregular periods. Your periods may:
– Come more often or less often
– Last more days or fewer
– Be lighter or heavier
Hot flashes. These can cause:
– Sudden feelings of heat all over or in the upper part of your body
– Flushing of your face and neck
– Red blotches on your chest, back and arms
– Heavy sweating and cold shivering after the flash
Trouble sleeping. You may have:
– Trouble sleeping through the night
– Night sweats
Vaginal and urinary problems. Changing hormone levels can lead to:
– Drier and thinner vaginal tissue, which can make sex uncomfortable
– More infections in the vagina
– More urinary tract infections
– Urinary incontinence
Mood changes. You might:
– Have mood swings
– Cry more often
– Feel crabby
Changing feelings about sex. You might:
– Feel less interested in sex
– Feel more comfortable with your sexuality
Other changes. Some other possible changes at this time include:
– Forgetfulness or trouble focusing
– Losing muscle, gaining fat and having a larger waist
– Feeling stiff or achy
Menopause requires no medical treatment. Instead, treatments focus on relieving your signs and symptoms and preventing or managing chronic conditions that may occur with aging. Treatments may include:
Hormone therapy. Estrogen therapy remains, by far, the most effective treatment option for relieving menopausal hot flashes. Depending on your personal and family medical history, your doctor may recommend estrogen in the lowest dose needed to provide symptom relief for you. Estrogen also helps prevent bone loss. Hormone therapy may benefit your heart if started within five years after your last menstrual period.
Vaginal estrogen. To relieve vaginal dryness, estrogen can be administered directly to the vagina using a vaginal cream, tablet or ring. This treatment releases just a small amount of estrogen, which is absorbed by the vaginal tissues. It can help relieve vaginal dryness, discomfort with intercourse and some urinary symptoms.
Low-dose antidepressants. Certain antidepressants may decrease menopausal hot flashes. A low-dose antidepressant for management of hot flashes may be useful for women who can’t take estrogen for health reasons or for women who need an antidepressant for a mood disorder.
Gabapentin (Neurontin). Gabapentin is approved to treat seizures, but it has also been shown to help reduce hot flashes. This drug is useful in women who can’t use estrogen therapy and in those who also have migraines.
Medications to prevent or treat osteoporosis. Depending on individual needs, doctors may recommend medication to prevent or treat osteoporosis. Several medications are available that help reduce bone loss and risk of fractures.
Some women try herbs or other natural products that come from plants to help relieve hot flashes. These include:
Soy. Soy contains phytoestrogens, substances from a plant that may act like the estrogen your body makes. The best sources for soy are foods such as tofu, tempeh, soy milk and soy nuts.
Other sources of phytoestrogens. These include herbs such as black cohosh, wild yam, dong quai and valerian root.
Calcium intake. Ingest 1,000 to 1,500 mg of calcium a day. Combine this with regular weight-bearing exercise to avoid osteoporosis and maintain general good health.
Before deciding on any form of treatment, talk with your doctor about your options and the risks and benefits involved with each. Review your options regularly, as your needs and treatment options may change. Learning how to cope with your symptoms now can bring you months of comfort as you transition to the next phase of your life.