While not having to deal with the annoyances of a monthly period are celebratory, exchanging them for hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, insomnia, dry skin, weight gain, vaginal dryness, low sex drive are not fun. These are just a few of the many symptoms women approaching menopause experience, culminating with the cessation of your monthly menstruation. These symptoms occur primarily due to hormonal fluctuations, and can begin as many as 10 to 15 years before you actually reach menopause.
Most women begin to notice symptoms of perimenopause in their late 30s or early 40s. These symptoms are related to fluctuating levels of estrogen and progesterone, as well as changes to how often you ovulate. Perimenopause symptoms may only last a few years, or you may experience them at varying levels for as many as 15 years. Symptoms also tend to increase in frequency as you get closer to menopause. Common symptoms include:
- Menstrual irregularities: Your period may become more or less frequent. You may also experience between period spotting or skip periods altogether, or your periods may begin to last longer than the normal five to seven days.
- Hot flashes: You may experience these as night sweats, when you wake up with your sheets soaked with perspiration, or during the day. The hot flashes may become more frequent as you draw nearer to menopause and can be very intense and uncomfortable.
- Insomnia: This may occur due to night sweats, or it may be an independent symptom.
- Irregular ovulation: While ovulation was once regular, it now occurs at less regular intervals. While changes in ovulation decrease fertility, it also can increase your risk of unexpected pregnancy if you rely on an ovulation calendar as your main form of birth control.
- Irritability: Moodiness may be due to lack of sleep or to hormonal fluctuations. Depression may also occur.
- Changed libido: This may occur for many reasons, including hormonal fluctuations and vaginal dryness, which can cause discomfort during intercourse.
Full menopause occurs most frequently between the ages of 45 and 55. Once you have not had a period for 12 months, you are considered to have reached menopause. While perimenopause gradually eases (although sometimes it doesn’t seem easy!) you into menopause, in some cases it arrives abruptly with few symptoms. Women who have had hysterectomies without hormone replacement therapy may suddenly enter menopause post-surgically, and may experience more drastic symptoms due to sudden changes in hormonal levels. All of the same symptoms that occur in perimenopause may also plague you after your period has ceased. Further, due the significant decrease in estrogen occurring after menopause, women are more likely to develop osteoporosis and loss of bone density.
Hormone Replacement Therapy
For years, doctors used hormone replacement therapy to treat the symptoms of menopause; however, clinical trials in 2002 revealed risks associated with long-term use of HRT. Now, it is a personal decision women make with their physicians after evaluating the risks and drawbacks. Women choosing HRT should discuss risks and drawbacks associated with estrogen-only replacement therapy, as well as combined estrogen-progestin replacement therapy. Risks and benefits may increase or decrease with the type of HRT, as well as whether the woman has had breast cancer, uterine cancer, or hysterectomy.
Increased risks associated with HRT include:
- Heart disease
- Abnormal mammograms
- Breast and uterine cancer
- Liver damage
- Stroke and blood clots
- Gall bladder disease
- Facial hair growth
- Eye problems
- Insulin resistance
- Weight gain
- Mood changes
At the same time, HRT may confer certain protections to women, including:
- Decreased menopause or perimenopausal symptoms
- Decreased risk of developing osteoporosis
- Decreased risk of colorectal cancer
- Decreased risk of heart disease
Controlling Symptoms of Menopause
Ready to find ways to naturally control your menopause symptoms? Let’s take a look at them one by one.
- Hot flashes: While many women think hot flashes are inevitable, there are things you can do to control them! A number of things can trigger hot flashes, including stress, alcohol, spicy foods, caffeine, medication, hot showers, and smoking, among others. Keep a journal and record your triggers, and then seek to avoid them. Eliminate caffeine, stop smoking, and minimize any unnecessary medications. Get on that rooibos or herbal tea, and give up the coffee! Keep rooms on the cool side and dress in layers you can peel off quickly if you find yourself becoming too warm. Wear light, natural fabrics and keep some water on hand for hydration. Minimize stress by practicing yoga or meditating.
- Insomnia: Since insomnia is frequently caused by hot flashes or night sweats during menopause, your room environment is important. Keep the temperature on the cool side and sleep under cotton sheets and light, natural fabric blankets. Don’t eat right before bedtime, and eat a healthy, plant-based diet during the day. Avoid stimulants like caffeine or smoking. Relax before bedtime by meditating or performing gentle stretches, and avoid taking a hot bath or shower, or drinking a hot beverage before bed.
- Irritability and moodiness: One of the best remedies for mood swings is exercise! Get outside and take a brisk 20-minute walk, or practice yoga daily. You can also center yourself through meditation. Also, try to always make a post workout snack to stop yourself from eating a larger meal. Caffeine, medication, and smoking can contribute to mood swings, so avoid them at all costs. Support your body nutritionally by eating a healthy plant-based diet, and get plenty of sleep. Chlorophyll from eating a lot of greens is a great mood stabilizer. Be sure to take time for yourself, as well. You may also want to try massage or acupuncture, which can help to re-balance your energy.
- Libido changes: Hormonal fluctuations, lack of sleep, stress, and even concern about aging can lead to changes in libido during menopause and perimenopause. Get plenty of sleep and engage in stress reduction activities like exercise, yoga, meditation, and “me time.” Energy medicine like acupuncture, reiki, and massage can also help rebalance your natural energy and increase your sex drive. You may also wish to consider eating natural aphrodisiac foods such as cinnamon and chocolate. Most importantly, spend positive time with your partner just enjoying one another’s company as often as possible so you can reconnect and remember why you fell in love in the first place.
- Vaginal dryness: The simplest solution for vaginal dryness is to boost water intake. Switch to natural self-care products like soaps and powders that are free of drying chemicals like alcohol. Avoid alcoholic beverages and caffeine, which can be dehydrating. Add omega-3 fats to your diet, as well. If you still experience vaginal dryness after making these changes, try a natural personal lubricant like coconut oil. I don’t recommend petroleum-based ones.
- Urinary incontinence: If you are experiencing urine leakage, you can strengthen your pelvic floor muscles to prevent this. Practice Kegel exercises three times per day by tightening the same muscle you use to stop your flow of urine.
You can control your menopausal symptoms with simple, natural dietary and overall lifestyle changes. By doing so, you will make the transition into your next phase of life comfortably and gracefully.