Menopause, the dreaded “M word” for many women, can be a new chapter of uncertainty in a woman’s life. It is full of stories from women who have gone through “the change.” For those who haven’t experienced it yet, it can be concerning to hear tales of hot flashes, painful sex, trouble sleeping, mood swings, and more. Yet, menopause is just another stop in the ever-amazing journey of a woman and her body.
Menopause is the point at which a woman hasn’t had a period for 12 months. In the months leading up to that event, known as perimenopause/menopausal transition, women experience a variety of symptoms (some more than others). These symptoms can include changes to their monthly menstrual cycles, hot flashes, vaginal dryness, nights sweats, chills, weight gain, skin dryness, and more. The average age for women in the US at menopause is 51, yet it can impact women at different ages.
So “How hot are hot flashes?” “Is sex really that terrible?” and “How much weight are we talking about?” Let’s do a little digging on these “hot” topics and more.
Hot Flashes – To Each Her Own
From talking to other women or seeing popular media, it can seem as if hot flashes are an “all day, everyday” problem for all women in perimenopause. But, that may or may not be the case. Hot flashes are thought to occur because of decreasing hormone levels and changes to the hypothalamus (helps regulate body temperature). Though every woman’s experience with hot flashes can be different, common symptoms include a sudden feeling of warmth or redness on the skin, a rapid heartbeat, and sweating on the upper body followed by chills.
Symptoms of hot flashes can last several years. Some women experience hot flashes more often, and more severely, than others. A 2016 study published by the University of Pittsburgh in Menopause found that when it comes to hot flashes and night sweats, women tend to follow four different patterns throughout the menopausal transition:
- Low chance of having symptoms
- High chance of having symptoms
- Higher chance of experiencing symptoms at a younger age
- Higher chance of experiencing symptoms later in life
More Sex Actually Helps
As the body makes less estrogen, the vagina can become dry and lose elasticity. But the answer is not less sex, but more! The North American Menopause Society recommends the use of a vaginal moisturizer and regular sexual activity during and after menopause. This helps keep the vagina more elastic, stimulates blood flow and helps keep the vaginal muscles toned.
While menopause can play a part in making sexual intercourse painful and uncomfortable for some, especially for those who previously had challenges before menopause, it is important for a woman to talk with her doctor if sex is painful or not enjoyable, or if she is having difficulty achieving orgasm. Getting support early can help down the road.
Menopausal Weight Gain & Belly Fat
Weight gain and menopause often go and hand. Just as a girl’s body changes during puberty, there are changes to a woman’s body during menopause. Added weight that would generally build up in a younger woman’s hips and thighs is more prone to build up in the middle of the body as women enter menopause. This added “belly fat” can be concerning to a woman in terms of her appearance and the fit of her clothes, but it can also be a risk for high blood pressure and heart disease.
Women can help stave off this potential weight gain by being prepared for it. This includes eating a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fish, lean meats, and dairy. Managing stress, following a regular sleep pattern (as possible with hot flashes and night sweats), and being physically active every day is also very important. Strength training to build and support lean muscle mass can help women reverse the loss of muscle mass that comes with the menopausal transition. Women should ensure they are meeting recommended goals for key nutrients, such as calcium and vitamin D – especially when doing strength training and exercise. Strong bones are key!
Riding the Mood Roller Coaster
Women in perimenopause can feel like they are on a carnival ride that never stops. One minute they are calm and relaxed, the next sad and anxious. Decreasing levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone play a large part in causing these mood changes. Estrogen helps the body produce serotonin which elevates mood, so less estrogen means less of this mood-boosting neurotransmitter. Many of the positive behaviors that can help with weight management can also help with mood management. Women with severe symptoms, particularly as it relates to feeling sad or depressed, should consult their physician for treatment options, such as medication or hormone replacement therapy (HRT).
Being pro-active and prepared for the changes that come with menopause, as well as trying to enter this transition time at their healthiest can help women more successfully conquer menopause.
Don’t miss an article! Sign up for our newsletter below and we’ll let you know when our next article comes out.