As a woman, your hormones control all sorts of things, including your menstrual cycle. The levels of estrogen and progesterone start to naturally dip right around age 45. From there, they sort of plateau. This is usually the beginning of menopause, or the stage in life when you stop having periods. This normal part of aging will likely cause some unwanted symptoms. So, how does your body get to this point?
Technically, menopause starts when your body goes a full 12 months without a period (that includes spotting). Your menstrual cycle may have been on auto-pilot since puberty, with your ovaries producing plenty of estrogen to keep your monthly flow regular. As you move into your late 40s and early 50s, the ovaries make less and less estrogen until there’s no longer enough for your body to release an egg. This is what triggers natural menopause. We say “natural” because sometimes having your ovaries removed can also trigger menopause (premature menopause).1, 2
Natural menopause is a gradual process that happens in 3 stages: perimenopause, menopause and postmenopause.3, 4
Often called “transition to menopause,” perimenopause is the time leading up to your last period. This is when your estrogen and progesterone levels slowly start to drop. Perimenopause can last 8 to 10 years, but the average time is right around 4 years. For example, if you start perimenopause when you’re 40, you might not transition into full menopause until you’re closer to 50.
Once you’ve gone a full year without any menstrual bleeding, you’ve officially reached menopause. The ovaries have stopped producing enough estrogen to release eggs and you’re well on your way to postmenopause.
After a full year of menopause, your body moves into postmenopause. This just means you’ve gone through menopause and now you’re living period-free for the rest of your life. During this stage, many symptoms will likely ease up. But, some could last for many years after menopause. It’s also important to keep in mind that with lower levels of estrogen, you’re at a higher risk for certain health conditions, like osteoporosis and heart disease.
You’ve probably heard about some of the things that happen to your body during the stages of menopause. Each woman has a different experience with perimenopause and menopause symptoms, so you could have just a few or many. If you notice some or all of the following symptoms, you may be transitioning into menopause or already in the thick of it:5
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats or cold flashes
- Vaginal dryness or discomfort during sex
- Urgent need to urinate (and more frequently)
- Difficulty sleeping
- Mood swings or mild depression
- Dry skin, eyes or mouth
- Tender breasts
- Irregular periods
- Worsening premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
These changes are caused from your body having less estrogen and also some of the ups and downs in other hormone levels. It’s basically your body trying to balance itself back out. You might also notice things like:
- Racing heart
- Joint and muscle aches
- Change in libido
- Difficulty concentrating or remembering
- Weight gain
- Hair loss or thinning
Do some research and talk with your doctor about ways you can help manage symptoms. Some can be addressed through lifestyle changes, while others through natural remedies (like herbals and supplements) or medicine. For some women, hormone replacement therapy might be a good option to help control certain symptoms.
Have you heard other women tell stories about hot flashes? They’re one of the most common (and most frequent) symptom of menopause. During a hot flash, you might get flushed, start to sweat and feel chilly afterwards. Some women only get them for a little while and others could have them for the rest of their life. The good news? They tend to get less severe as time goes on. To help, try to stay away from known triggers, like caffeine, stress, smoking, spicy foods, alcohol and tight clothes.
Did you know estrogen helps control your body weight? Lower levels of estrogen can lower your metabolism, increase your tendency to eat more and cause your body to increase its fat storage. All these factors make it easy to put on a little extra weight and harder to lose it. Finding an exercise routine that works well with your body and lifestyle (combined with a healthy, nutritious diet) can not only help keep your waist line in check, but also keep your body healthy as it ages. Menopause increases your risk of things like osteoporosis and heart disease — but luckily, regular exercise helps lower your risk of developing them, and improves your overall health — physically and mentally.6
Every woman’s body reacts differently postmenopause. While hot flashes and weight gain are some of the more common things women are concerned with, things like bladder control, insomnia and risk for certain health conditions are also things you may have to manage after menopause. It’s important to be patient with your body and pay close attention to how your body and mind are feeling. Then, talk with an expert about ways to help yourself work through these changes. Here are a few tips to get you started:7
- Keep your body strong: A nutritious diet and regular exercise can help keep your body weight in a good place, and get your bones and muscles strong. (It’s a good idea to choose foods that strengthen your bones to reduce your risk of osteoporosis.)
- Count your kegels: Your pelvic floor muscle is what supports your uterus, bladder, small intestine and rectum. It’s what controls your bathroom breaks. If you’re having a few accidents or your bladder leaks a little when you sneeze, give kegel exercises a try. They strengthen your pelvic floor and help you to take back control of when you go.8
- Practice healthy habits: Avoid tobacco, eat a nutritious diet, exercise regularly, and take good care of your body and mental health.
- Limit stress: You’re at a higher risk for developing heart disease postmenopause and stress only makes that risk higher. Consider things like yoga, meditation, massage therapy, acupuncture — or even a new hobby that helps calm you.
Who should I see about menopause?
If you have questions or concerns about menopause, or you’d like some guidance on how to live with your symptoms, you may want to go right to your gynecologist. Your gynecologist specializes in the health of female organs and will likely be your best choice. You can also see your primary care provider (the doctor or provider you might see for your yearly physical). Be sure to come prepared with a list of your symptoms and questions.