When you’re a woman in her mid-fifties like me, you start to view all your medical symptoms with suspicion and you constantly ask yourself whether this is the start of the transition to menopause.
Menopause is often cryptically referred to as “the change of life.” But as lovely as this sounds, it doesn’t tell anyone a whole lot about menopause, nor what to expect.
Menopause is something every woman with all her reproductive organs eventually experiences – a natural part of the biological process. It is not a disease or illness, although some menopause side effects can be very unpleasant indeed.
Some doctors claim that menopause is a process that can start with a woman in her 30s and last as late as her 60s. But menopause occurs in most women between the ages of 45 and 55 and is officially defined as the full stopping of menstrual periods for at least 12 months in a row.
Some of the signs and symptoms of menopause include the obvious, irregular periods. The unpredictability of periods is one of the first signs of menopause. Menstrual periods can suddenly vary between gradually getting lighter, then heavier, and then lighter again.
Another sign of menopause is decreased fertility. A menopausal woman does not ovulate and cannot get pregnant. But women in the menopause transition should still be cautious. Pregnancy in a woman who hasn’t completed menopause can still happen, especially if it’s only been a few months since her periods stopped. Remember, full menopause doesn’t occur until a woman’s menstrual periods have stopped for at least 12 months.
Menopause is caused by a woman’s estrogen levels decreasing. So a woman in menopause doesn’t produce enough estrogen to keep the vagina and urethra well lubricated. So menopause causes the vagina and urethra to become less elastic and drier, causing those areas to become itchier and more at risk for infections. Sex can also be more uncomfortable for women in menopause.
The drops in estrogen levels during menopause can also cause what’s called hot flashes. Hot flashes are often the butt of jokes but can be quite bad for some women experiencing menopause. Hot flashes can last at least 30 seconds to up to several minutes. They can happen at any time during day or night and are characterized by a flushed face and red blotches on chest, neck and arms. Some women find that they are actually bathed in sweat.
Other symptoms and signs of menopause include an inability to sleep as well as a modest – usually five-pound – weight gain. Adult acne can get worse during menopause. Plus with decreased estrogen levels in menopause, the small amounts of testosterone every female produces takes over. Because of this, sometimes women in menopause can get coarse facial hair and coarse hair on the chest and stomach.
Menopause is a natural life transition. But sometimes complications in the process of menopause occur. For example, if a woman knows for sure she’s in menopause (that is she hasn’t had a period for at least 12 months in a row), and she’s bleeding from her vagina, she should go see a doctor.
If a woman thinks she’s in menopause but isn’t sure, she can always go to a doctor. Depending on the situation, a doctor might take a blood test to determine menopause. In this case, a blood sample is usually tested for the level of estrogen and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). During menopause FSH levels increase as estrogen levels decrease. So higher levels of FSH and lower levels of estrogen will show a woman has gone into menopause.
Be prepared, however, for your FSH levels to vary – it may take several blood tests around 6 months apart to ensure that you are fully menopausal. Mine, for example, have been normal, menopausal and normal! For this reason, you should still keep using contraception. Although a 50+ baby would be unusual, according to my GP it certainly isn’t impossible. Since I had Ieuan at 45 I’m not taking any chances!
The transition to menopause can be a tricky time for many women and I would recommend talking to your GP and also friends and family who have gone or are going through it. Sharing experiences and what works in terms of HRT or alternative therapies may help you cope better with any health-related challenges.