Menopause is a normal part of aging. For some women – particularly if their periods have often been a serious source of discomfort and inconvenience – going through menopause can bring a welcome change. But for others, the symptoms which accompany menopause can be truly unpleasant and can go on for years. But keep in mind, when menopause symptoms such as hot flashes, moodiness, and sleep disturbances become a serious issue – relief is possible.
Strictly speaking, a woman is considered to have “gone through menopause” when she goes twelve months without menstrual bleeding. Although surgery or certain medications can cause premature menopause, under normal conditions, menopause is caused by a gradual decrease in the amount of estrogen and progesterone produced by the ovaries as a woman ages. A gradual ‘peri-menopausal’ transition usually begins in the late 40s, although some women may experience it earlier, and others not until they are well into their 50s. In the U.S., the average age of menopause – meaning that the women have gone 12 months without a period – is 51-52 years old.
After menopause, a woman enters postmenopause. At this time, the changes in hormone levels may cause a new set of health challenges. These health changes can include heart disease and osteoporosis. Symptoms that occur during menopause can bring discomfort and reduced quality of life. It may also lead to increased visits to the doctor’s office and lost work productivity. However, some women feel a sense of relief that they no longer have to deal with painful period cramps. And some women are relieved that they can no longer become pregnant.
Common Menopause Symptoms
During the menopausal transition, many women experience changes in their monthly cycle. Many women also experience hot flashes, difficulty sleeping, moodiness and irritability, pain during intercourse, and depression. However, some women will experience few or no symptoms of the transition taking place.
If a woman is having symptoms of peri-menopause, a history and physical may be sufficient for diagnosis. A blood test assessing levels of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) and estradiol (E2) may be done in some cases. Blood tests can help rule out other causes of the symptoms.
Menopause and Chronic Conditions
Because of the hormone changes that occur with menopause, women’s bones usually become less dense, increasing the risk for fractures. The body also uses energy differently, plus women may be less active, resulting in muscle loss and weight gain. Weight gain can increase the risk of developing high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and insulin resistance. These conditions can make women more prone to heart disease and diabetes.
Hot Flashes During Menopause
Hot flashes are another common symptom of menopause that can happen during the day or at night. If they happen at night, they are called night sweats. A hot flash is a sudden feeling of heat – usually in the upper part of the body, followed by a flushed face and neck. You may also see red blotches on the chest, back, and arms during a hot flash. Some women also experience heavy sweating, sometimes followed by cold shivering.
Menopausal hot flashes can be mild or very strong. They usually last between 30 seconds and 10 minutes. They can range in frequency just once or twice per week to several times per hour. Hot flashes can even continue for a few years past menopause.
According to the National Institute on Aging, the earlier in life you experience hot flashes, the longer you may suffer from them. If you have African-American or Hispanic ancestry, this may be even more pronounced. Hot flashes can be medically treated or handled with lifestyle changes. It may be helpful to make a few changes to your lifestyle before trying medications.
Top 10 Tips to Help Manage Hot Flashes
1. Avoid hot flash triggers such as smoking, alcohol, caffeine, spicy foods, and very hot showers.
2. Dress in layers so you can adjust as needed.
3. Carry a portable fan to help cool yourself when a hot flash occurs.
4. Maintain a healthy weight by increasing your activity level. Being overweight can increase the frequency and severity of menopausal symptoms.
5. Stress can be another trigger for hot flashes. Consider trying yoga, deep breathing, or tai chi to help reduce stress.
6. Keep your bedroom cool at night and try drinking small amounts of iced water before bed.
7. Layer your bedding so you can adjust as needed.
8. Use a fan in the bedroom.
9. Keep a frozen cold pack under your pillow or by your feet to help keep cool.
10. Add soy isoflavones from food or a supplement. Soy isoflavones are found in soy foods, such as tofu, tempeh, edamame, and soymilk. Soy isoflavones (genistin, daidzin, and glycitin) are phytoestrogens that can help relieve hot flashes. Studies suggest isoflavones help to reduce hot flashes. A recent in-depth assessment recommends soy isoflavones as a first-line of treatment of hot flashes. Isoflavone intake is considered safe for long-term use (up to three years) and may be protective against breast cancer.
Staying Healthy Through Menopause and After
Even if you don’t experience many of the classic menopause symptoms, there are several things you can do to maintain your health during menopause and after.
Maintain a healthy diet and active lifestyle.
Eat a healthy diet, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. Include lean proteins such as poultry, fish, beans, and lentils, and dairy products. This is essential for reducing staying healthy during and after menopause.
It is important to be physically active. Add at least 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week, such as walking, running, swimming, biking, or participating in fitness classes at your local community center. It is important to do strength-training exercises twice a week, whether at a facility or home, with resistance bands or weights. This is important to maintain muscle mass. Small changes such as taking the stairs instead of riding the elevator and parking further away from your destination to walk more are good healthy habits to increase your physical activity daily.
Keep your bones healthy.
Consider taking a calcium and vitamin D supplement to keep your bones strong and prevent bone loss. The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for calcium for women aged 19 to 50 is 1,000 mg a day, which increases to 1,200 mg for women over the age of 51.
Calcium-rich foods include milk and dairy products, canned fish with bones like salmon and sardines, dark green leafy vegetables (kale, collards, broccoli), and calcium-fortified drinks like orange juice.
Taking a calcium supplement is important if you do not get enough calcium from foods. Choose a product with calcium citrate, which has superior bioavailability. Remember, it is best to take no more than 500 mg of calcium in each dose, as this is the most that can be absorbed by your body at one time.