If you think you’re not old enough to talk about menopause, think again. Because nobody talks about menopause until you’re scrambling for answers about what the hell is happening to your body.
This isn’t Fight Club. We need to talk about menopause because there’s a lot leading up to it that nobody tells you in your 30s or 40s. It’s like the black hole of feminine mystique (no pun intended).
As your body ages, it’s a weird wild time. From changes in your period to serious changes in your mood to a new found spare tire wrapped around your middle. Hopefully you have a good doctor to guide you through all the changes. But if you’re like me, most medical professionals smile and nod and tell you to focus on diet and exercise.
If only it were that simple.
I’m here to share with you all the things I wish someone had prepared me for when it comes to menopause.
What Exactly is Menopause?
I’ve asked my friends in their 40s and no one is entirely clear on how to define menopause. We all know it’s the CHANGE. But the change from what to what?
Here’s the thing about menopause. You don’t know you’re in menopause until it’s over.
Menopause is when you have gone 12 consecutive months without a period. But for most women, it doesn’t just stop one day. It stops. And then it starts again. And maybe it stops for a few months and then starts again. None of that counts until you’ve reached the milestone of 12 months without a period.
So you may be currently marching toward that goal (like me) but you won’t know you’re there until the calendar says so. Here’s how to prepare.
What are the Stages of Menopause?
As I mentioned above, you don’t just wake up one day, stop having periods, and consider menopause complete. It’s a process and one that, again, not a lot of doctors proactively talk about.
First comes Perimenopause
If you’re in your 30s or 40s and still have your period on a regular (for you) basis, you’re likely in something called perimenopause. All that means is that your body is hormonally changing and thinking about the big day when you’ll no longer need to menstruate.
Perimenopause lasts for years. I would argue that I experienced perimenopause for over 10 years. You can still get pregnant but your hormone levels are fluctuating. As a result, you may experience some of the following symptoms:
- Night sweats (this is the number one symptom I had)
- Hot flashes (yes, it’s different than night sweats)
- Vaginal Dryness
I’ve experienced most of the above at some point over the past decade. In fact, moodiness reared its head as one really horrific PMS day per month. It’s when the RAGEMONSTER would appear and about halfway through the day, I figured out that my period must be imminent. I was always right.
I also would frequently have night sweats during my period. They say that night sweats are hot flashes that occur while you’re sleeping. Not so, my friend. At least not in my experience. With night sweats, I would often wake up completely soaked. Enough that I needed to change my pajamas. But I never really felt a change in my body temperature. Now that I have proper hot flashes, I know they are different.
After a few months or years of perimenopause…
Then comes Menopause
As mentioned above, menopause is the stage in which you’ve experienced 12 consecutive months without a period. You might experience some of the same symptoms as perimenopause but at different levels of severity:
- Night sweats
- Hot flashes
- Irregular periods
- Vaginal dryness
- Brain fog
- Difficulty sleeping
- Weight gain (commonly called menopause belly)
- Thinning hair and dry skin
And unfortunately, I’ve experienced most of these. The good news is that the night sweats have gone away. The bad news is they have been replaced with hot flashes (bonus: my feet aren’t freezing in winter anymore!).
The moodiness has changed too. Instead of RAGEMONSTER, I’ve just become grumpy old woman. I think I understand my mother more now.
And as many of you know, I’ve experienced a lot of thinning hair.
But don’t worry. This stage quickly comes to an end. It’s like crossing a threshold. You wore the perimenopause hat all the way up to the menopause finish line and now you have officially entered…
Finally it’s Post Menopause
If you’ve made it here, congratulations. Your eggs are done. Your period is gone. You now have a new sense of freedom… and symptoms:
- Night sweats
- Hot flashes
- Vaginal dryness
- Changes in sex drive
- Difficulty sleeping
- Dry skin
- Weight gain
- Hair loss
- Urinary incontinence
Wait a minute – if we’re THROUGH menopause, why do we have to deal with all of this garbage?
That’s because this is a process. THANKS, HORMONES!
It takes years for your hormones to calm down so some symptoms can last for years (like hot flashes) and some may last for the rest of your life.
What’s Actually Happening with Menopause?
Yes, we’ve already established that your period stops. But why does it stop? It’s important to know this so you can understand everything else that’s happening.
If you remember way back to 5th grade Family Life (or sex ed or whatever it was called), you’ll remember that our period was tied to our fertility.
Estrogen is the hormone that encourages the thickening of our uterine lining to make way for a potential baby. And if a baby didn’t come, progesterone would come in and tell your body to get rid of all of that stuff and try again next month. Our bodies also regulate testosterone which helps us produce estrogen.
As we get older and our body decides that we’ve had enough chances (or eggs) to potentially reproduce and it slowly reduces the amounts of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone in our bodies.
The result is crazy wacky symptoms and periods. THANKS, HORMONES!
When menopause arrives, estrogen is in short supply and ovulation eventually stops. Your hormones have up and quit. And if you’re lucky (like me), you just might time it right to have a teen in your household with an abundance of hormones at the exact same time!
Can You Treat Menopause?
This is a good question and comes down to a matter of preference.
The first thing you need to understand is that this is a permanent change to your body. Symptoms range from temporary to permanent and by treating menopause, you’re essentially looking for symptomatic relief. But there are options. It’s important to talk to your doctor and if they don’t have answers, find another doctor!
To treat the overall decline in your hormones, many women opt for Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). This is essentially supplementing your body with the estrogen and progesterone that you’re no longer making. This is especially helpful for women with severe symptoms. There are advantages and disadvantages to this route which is why you want to talk to your doctor about options.
If you’re not looking to go the prescription drug route, there are many over-the-counter supplements designed to specifically help treat menopausal symptoms with more natural ingredients. I was pleasantly surprised that my nurse practitioner recommended quite a few brands to try including Estroven, Amberen, Remifemin, and even sage tea.
Estrogen cream is another treatment for vaginal dryness. I mention it specifically because a lot of women don’t realize this exists. This is something that you apply topically down there and I’ve heard it’s a game changer. There are natural creams you can use but an estrogen cream is something you typically need a prescription for.
As for some of the other symptoms? Grouchiness, insomnia, dry skin, hair loss are all things that can be treated symptomatically with varying degrees of results. Don’t be afraid to finally try an anti-depressant (it can work wonders!), or get the face cream your mom always used, or splurge on a new product to fix your hair.
Finally, your doctor might be onto something when they mention diet and exercise. We can’t eat the same and we certainly can’t exercise the same, but we can make The Change into a positive one!
Just don’t give up. Our bodies change throughout our lives – sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. It’s a reminder of a life well-lived.
Let me know if you’re interested in more real talk about women and aging. Because I’m not afraid to talk about it and I’m right there with you!