The first time you have your menstrual cycle, it’s a pretty big deal. After all, it’s a sign you can get pregnant and are becoming a “woman.” It’s also the beginning of a long relationship with tampons, pads and cramps. Most schools introduce the topic of menstruation in 5th or 6th grade via a sex education class or something similar.
But what about when you stop menstruating? Where are the classes that prepare us for that monumental change?
Most women don’t begin researching menopause until they are experiencing it for themselves. The lack of information about what is going on in your body can lead to worry and anxiety. Whether you’re close to menopause or far from it, you should know what it is, why it is happening, how to identify symptoms, and what therapies are available.
What is Menopause?
The word menopause comes from the French word ‘la ménépausie.’ Dr. Charles Pierre Louis de Gardanne coined the term menopause in 1821 from the Latin ‘menopausis,’ which roots in ancient Greek as ‘men’ meaning month, and ‘pauein’ meaning to stop.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) defines menopause as “the time in life when you naturally stop having menstrual periods. This happens when the ovaries stop making estrogen. Estrogen is a hormone that helps control the menstrual cycle.”
Most women experience menopause anywhere from 40-58. Menopause is when your periods stop, and perimenopause is the transition time leading up to this. But, you can also have ‘induced menopause.’
- Perimenopause: usually begins in your 30s or 40s, when the amount of estrogen made by your ovaries begins to vary and your cycles change. This is the transition to menopause. You may begin to skip your periods, or they may vary in length and amount.
- Induced (artificial) menopause: your menstrual cycles end due to medical intervention; usually surgical removal of both ovaries or cancer treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation, or other drugs.
Angelina Jolie, celebrity, told the New York Times about having a surgery at 39, that induced menopause. “I expect some physical changes. But I feel at ease with whatever will come, not because I am strong but because this is a part of life. It is nothing to be feared,“ Angelina said.
Women should know menopause – and all its related symptoms – is normal. It’s not necessarily a comfortable or an enjoyable process, but it is normal.
Sleeping with a fan by your face, sweating through your clothes on a cold day, mood swings that give you whiplash—these are usually the first images that come to mind when someone says ‘menopause.’
“The symptoms can vary from mood changes to people complaining about joint pain. Not everyone gets the classic hot flushes – people need to be aware there are many symptoms,” Dr. Setchell, General Practitioner and British Menopause Society member, told the UK Telegraph. “Some women sail through the menopause, but others are completely debilitated.”
Menopause symptoms, and their intensity, are different for each woman, even around the world. Only 7% of Japanese women suffer from hot flashes, but they report shoulder pain. In India, women report low vision. There are many factors that influence a woman’s life beyond her hormones—genetics, family, exercise and eating habits, job, level of stress, etc. Just like each woman experiences childbirth in a unique way, so does each woman experience menopause.
The most common symptoms are:
- Mood swings
- Hot flashes (any time or night sweats)
- Urinary incontinence
- Memory problems
- Weight gain
- Vulvovaginal dryness/pain with intercourse
Upon menopause, “Estrogen and testosterone levels may drop, causing a decreased interest in sex or vaginal dryness, which can make sex uncomfortable,” Dr. Deepali Patni, OB/GYN at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic in Houston, told CNN.
Originally called ‘vaginal atrophy,’ the constellation of symptoms is now called Genitourinary Syndrome of Menopause (GSM). This refers to uncomfortable conditions including dryness and pain during sex, and needing to go to the bathroom at inconvenient times.
“Women often feel “powerless” to tackle symptoms, because they believe there are limited treatment options and support available,” Dr Heather Currie, chairman of the British Menopause Society, told the UK Telegraph.
Embarrassment and stigma surrounding menopause keeps too many women from seeking treatments. Slowly, but surely, women are becoming more action-oriented toward managing menopause. Even celebrities are openly giving advice about getting through menopause.
Sometimes lifestyle changes like exercise, diet and restful sleep strategies are helpful to women in menopause. Or, therapies such as plant and herbal supplements, medications, and hormone replacement are available. But, before you decide on a treatment, you should discuss this with a practitioner who specializes in menopause.
Together, you can choose what is best for you. Your experience with menopause is unique, so your treatment should be unique as well.
“Although women have been taught to dread menopause, this life stage ushers in the springtime of the second half of life and is often accompanied by surges in creativity, vitality, newfound ambition, and the need to be of meaningful service to the community in a larger way,” wrote Christiane Northrup, M.D., author and women’s health expert.
Treatments and research have come a long way since the 1930’s when menopause was described as a “deficiency disease”. But, we still need to raise awareness about menopause by sharing it with friends and family, and reaching out to professionals for help. As Ellen Dolgen, author, speaker and menopause awareness expert, said, “Suffering in silence is OUT. Reaching out is IN!”