By Jennifer Black, MD
Any person with ovaries and a uterus will eventually go through menopause. For some people, this is a source of alarm, for others it is fertile territory for jokes. Few people talk openly and honestly about the realities of menopause, which can leave the impression that menopause is something to be worried about, ashamed of, or not to be mentioned in polite company.
In reality, menopause is a fact of life, and it does not need to be shrouded in mystery or fear. Simply put, menopause occurs when menstruation has not happened for a full year. While this is a very straightforward definition, some of the symptoms associated with menopause can be a bit harder to pin down, and the timeline for menopause can vary from person to person, depending on genetics, lifestyle, or other health factors.
There are three stages to menopause: perimenopause, menopause, and postmenopause. Perimenopause is the stage leading up to menopause, and can last anywhere from a couple of years to a decade. During this time, the timing of periods becomes more irregular, and menstruation can become heavier or lighter. Once periods stop altogether for a year, a person can be said to have experienced menopause. The time after menopause is called postmenopause, and some of the symptoms of menopause can persist into this phase.
Beyond the changes in menstrual periods, menopause can have many other symptoms associated with it. One of the best known is hot flashes, which are sudden episodes of heat, sweating, and skin flushing. For some people, hot flashes are accompanied by a feeling of a racing heart, or are followed by sudden chills. These hot flashes can also occur at night, at which time they are aptly known as night sweats. For many people, this symptom can be combined with insomnia.
During the time leading up to and after menopause, people may also experience anxiety, depression, loss of memory, dry skin, headaches, loss of libido, reduction in muscle and bone mass, or changes in head and body hair. Symptoms vary from person to person, and can vary throughout the stages of menopause.
Since menopause is a totally natural process, there is no “cure”. However, there may be some treatments that can help to ease some of the symptoms. Simple lifestyle changes like quitting smoking, eating well, and exercising regularly can have a positive impact on some of the most common symptoms. For people who have entered into early menopause due to cancer treatment or hysterectomy, there may be more targeted treatments that can help to ease symptoms.
Talk to your primary care doctor or your OB/GYN provider about your questions and concerns about menopause. They can help you to understand what supplements or treatments will be most suitable for your health profile, and can work with you to make one of life’s great transitions manageable and worry-free.
Jennifer Black, MD is a Doctor of Obstetrics and Gynecology with Brattleboro OB/GYN, a department of Brattleboro Memorial Hospital. Specializing in women’s health, obstetrics and gynecology, Brattleboro OB/GYN offers preventive care for all ages, from adolescence to menopause, as well as advanced infertility treatments. Located at 21 Belmont Avenue, the practice can be reached at (802) 251-9965.