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What to Expect Before, During and After Menopause

Menopause affects every woman differently, but it's symptoms may present in similar ways.

Menopause is traditionally marked as the time when a woman’s menstrual period stops permanently. This occurs when the ovaries -- the female reproductive organs -- stop producing the hormones progesterone and estrogen. However, if you’ve had a hysterectomy, but the ovaries weren’t removed, this point in life may not be as obvious.

The term perimenopause is often confused with menopause. Perimenopause is the time preceding menopause. Understanding perimenopause symptoms will help you to physically and mentally prepare for menopause.

Symptoms Associated with the Beginning of Menopause

On average, menopause arrives in the early 50s (some may begin seeing symptoms as early as age 35, although this is hardly as common) and every woman will experience her own set of symptoms. Symptoms that may signal your body is preparing for menopause include:

  1. Irregular Periods
    Irregular periods may indicate menopause is coming up. However, an irregular period may also indicate pregnancy or potential health problems, so be sure to check with your doctor. If your uterus has been removed, your doctor can check your hormone levels with a simple blood test to determine if you're menopausal.
  2. Hot Flashes
    Hot flashes are good indicators of menopause. Hormone changes can cause your body's temperature regulators to go off kilter, causing you to feel very hot and sweat excessively. The majority of women approaching menopause experience hot flashes. This may be short lived or last for years.
  3. Difficulty Sleeping
    The reduction in estrogen production can cause the brain to release the chemicals responsible for the fight-or-flight response. While these hormones are useful when engaged in a sword fight or running from wild animals, they're much less beneficial when you're trying to get restful sleep.
  4. Mood Changes
    It probably doesn't come as a surprise that hormonal changes can lead to mood changes, just as you may have experienced mood changes related to PMS or during puberty. These mood swings may be aggravated by other menopause symptoms, such as poor sleep.
  5. Breast Tenderness
    You've also probably experienced tender breasts around the time of your menstrual cycles. Hormonal changes during menopause also cause the tissues in the breast to swell and to become sore.
  6. Heart Disease
    Homocysteine is a harmful biochemical produced by your body when there is reduced methylation. While this is a normal protective mechanism, increased homocysteine leads to faster aging as well as diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Homocysteine levels can be measured by a blood test. 
  7. Vaginal and Bladder Problems
    Estrogen is responsible for producing oil and sealing moisture within the skin. Without it, you may notice the vaginal area and skin elsewhere on the body become drier. Urinary incontinence can also occur, although it's less commonly discussed. Decreased estrogen can also weaken bladder control.
  8. Decreased Libido
    Almost 90 percent of women say they have a decreased interest in sex after menopause, due to reduced testosterone production in the ovaries. Generally regarded as the "male hormone," it's responsible for sex drive in women along with estrogen. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) depends on your overall health, especially heart and liver health.

When to Visit Your Doctor

If your menopause symptoms are interfering with the daily quality of your life, talk with your doctor about the many treatment methods available. It's a good idea to keep a symptom journal to bring to your appointment. It's important to mention all prescription medications and non-prescription supplements you're taking to prevent interactions.

The good news is hormone levels can be measured and treatments individually tailored. Before menopause, hormonal changes occur on a monthly basis. After menopause, hormones still have to be balanced in order for you to benefit.

Although doctors don't hand out synthetic estrogen like candy anymore, there may still be a role for this or other prescription strength "natural" estrogens. Progesterone and testosterone may or may not need to be replaced as well. Again, it should be highly individualized and requires professional input for the best results and least risk.

Natural Postmenopausal Support Tips

There are plenty of treatment methods out there and not all work, or work for everyone. You may be wondering, other than HRT under a doctor's supervision, what works the best, based on the research available? Here are some quick tips:

  • Exercise and Weight Loss -- Being overweight can increase the production of another estrogen, called estrone, by your fat cells. Too much estrone can increase the risk of uterine and breast cancer. Regular exercise can also reduce hot flashes.
  • Plant Estrogens -- Black cohosh, soy, isoflavones, kudzu and red clover are often recommended for hot flashes. Sometimes, combining several works better than one alone.
  • Vitamins and Minerals -- Taking folate and vitamin B6 and B12, can reduce homocysteine levels, which may reduce the risk of heart disease and breast cancer. If you're deficient in zinc, adding more supports testosterone metabolism and, therefore, sex drive.
  • Nutrition and Other Dietary Supplements -- By adding certain foods to your diet, you can lower your risk for degenerative diseases and cancer. Curcumin, which is the active part of turmeric, is a potent antioxidant that can be taken as a supplement or used in cooking. Cruciferous veggies can lower the risk of cancer and fish oil is full of omega-3 fatty acids which are anti-inflammatory and can protect against heart disease.

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of beneficial strategies for entering menopause and continuing a healthy, disease-free life. Speaking with your doctor can help you determine the best combination to keep you feeling your best now and for life.

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