Women usually begin to experience menopause around age 52 – but for some it’s earlier, and for others it’s later. And it doesn’t happen overnight.
Understanding what menopause is and accepting that it is a developmental milestone in every woman’s life are the first steps to finding menopausal relief – and looking and feeling better, says obstetrics-and-gynecology nurse practitioner Marcelle Pick.
Menopause, says WebMD, is a normal condition that all women experience as they age. The term “menopause” can describe any of the changes a woman goes through either just before or after she stops menstruating, marking the end of her reproductive period.
During menopause, a woman’s menstrual cycle stops and ovarian function declines, Pick said, and symptoms tend to vary from woman to woman.
“Some women will have hot flashes, some women will have depression. Some people will have night sweats, some will have foggy thinking,” said Pick, a founder of Women to Women, a medical clinic in Yarmouth. “Some women will be irritable and some people will have (chest) palpitations or anxiety.”
According to the Women to Women website, the word menopause comes from two Greek words, menos, or “month,” and pausis, or “cease.” Common symptoms include hot flashes, night sweats, anxiety, depression, fatigue, weight gain, lower sex drive, vaginal dryness (which Pick said can be treated with topical estrogen cream), and hair loss. Some women develop skin wrinkles earlier on in their lives, and others experience joint discomfort, said Pick.
Some women experience perimenopause, a transitional period where a woman could experience symptoms several years before menstruation stops completely. Though symptoms are individual, women in their late 30s, 40s or 50s can experience irregular periods, weight gain, especially around the waist and hips, insomnia, mood swings, headaches, and hot flashes while in perimenopause.
According to Women to Women, 40 percent of women don’t experience any symptoms from menopause or feel only mildly uncomfortable. Sixty-percent of menopausal women can have symptoms of dry eye, including redness, itchiness and sensitivity to light, according to the website.
Some women between 40 and 50 years old experience early menopause, another stage in the menopause cycle, where estrogen levels rapidly decline and symptoms appear suddenly. Pick said women can even start feeling symptoms of menopause when they hit their 30s or 40s.
“The problem is that you don’t know when menopause is until you’re there,” Pick said. And, she added, “there is no one answer for everybody. It depends on how severe symptoms are, how problematic symptoms are – in terms of interfering with a woman’s life – and what the solutions would be.”
Whether a woman has trouble sleeping or she’s having hot flashes, Pick said, every woman should educate herself as much as possible about menopause, including where and how to find relief, starting with talking openly with a doctor or health professional about menopause. Women who think they are experiencing symptoms of menopause can take a Hormone Health Assessment on Women to Women’s website to receive individualized advice about how to feel better.
Another step to finding relief is eating a well-balanced diet. For some patients, Pick said she might even recommend daily vitamin supplements to support hormonal balance and improve nutrition.
“The more stress we have, the worse our hormones become, and the more poor our diet is, the more imbalanced our hormones are, as well,” said Pick.
But dieting, Pick said, is “the most profound thing you can do to balance your hormones,” and by developing healthy eating habits, women can ward off hot flashes in a natural way.
According to Pick, healthy foods can provide hormonal and emotional balance for women. Foods rich with protein and omega-3 essential fatty acids, like salmon and avocado, and high-fiber phytonutrients, found in fruits and vegetables, will help women find hot flash relief, said Pick. Cutting back on sugar and carbohydrates “makes a huge difference,” she said. She recommends all women decrease their carbohydrate intake to 16 grams per meal and 7 grams per snack.
Along with dieting, Pick said, exercising – 30 minutes or more a day – whether it’s yoga, swimming, biking, walking or dancing or any other form of movement, can help women in menopause feel better. Basic lifestyle changes, including getting proper sleep, also helps, she said.