For many women, the common symptoms of menopause — which occurs naturally on average around age 51 — make life very difficult. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Dr. LaKeischa Webb McMillan, a physician at Nava Health & Vitality Center in College Park, Maryland, has been helping women deal with perimenopause — the years that lead up to the cessation of menstruation — for two decades. She encourages women to consult a health care professional about discussing options for relief.
“The most important thing I want my menopausal patients to understand is that this is a natural part of life, and although every individual will experience menopause in their own personal way, it is crucial not to wait until symptoms get unbearable or worse than expected to take action,” Dr. McMillan says.
Common Symptoms of Menopause
1. Hot Flashes
About 75 percent of women experience these sudden, periodic increases in body temperature. It can happen during the day or at night (night sweats), making it more difficult to get a restful sleep. Hot flashes are often accompanied by an increase in heart rate, which leads to sudden perspiration while the body attempts to cool itself down. Though hot flashes can be frequent and intense, they usually don’t last for more than a couple of years. There are many ways to handle hot flashes, including avoiding triggers like hot drinks, managing stress, and getting plenty of exercise.
2. Weight Gain
About two-thirds of women ages 40 to 59 are classified as overweight. By age 60, that number grows to nearly 75 percent. Yes, once menopause sets in, weight gain almost always follows. On average, midlife women gain around 1.5 pounds per year. As the human body changes, so do its hormones. That may lead to an increase in weight, especially around the abdomen, hips, and thighs. Maintaining a healthy diet is important. If you are unsure about how you should be eating, see a nutrition expert to provide clarification and create an action plan.
3. Poor Sleep/Insomnia
A majority of women report having trouble sleeping during menopause, which can result in weight gain and other negative health effects, including:
- Increased stress
- Inability to focus
- Gastrointestinal problems
To improve sleep, reduce consumption of stimulants such as caffeine, try massage therapy to manage stress levels, and talk to your doctor about incorporating tranquinol to regulate your sleep. If that does’t help, ask your doctor about progesterone.
4. Decreased Sex Drive
Estrogen and testosterone levels drop after menopause, which often results in loss of libido, lack of sexual desire, and even performance anxiety. If you’re experiencing any of these issues, you’re not alone. Studies indicate that rates of sexual problems in postmenopausal women are as high as 86.5 percent. Sexual issues during menopause are widespread for a variety of reasons, including decreased blood flow and low estrogen. These combine to make sexual intercourse less pleasurable, uncomfortable, or painful. Regular exercise can help improve your sex drive. So can bioidentical hormone therapy.
5. Vaginal Dryness
Vaginal dryness impacts up to 40 percent of menopausal women, yet many do not seek treatment, whether due to embarrassment or the thought that home remedies can make a difference. Quality of life can be greatly impacted if the issue is left untreated. Falling hormone levels mean less natural lubrication and loss of elasticity. Dr. McMillan recommends estrogen therapy to help alleviate vaginal dryness. For a non-hormonal alternative, try aloe vera as a natural moisturizer and water-based lubrication during sexual intercourse.
6. Irritability/Mood Swings
Though it may be stereotypical, irritability is definitely one of the more common symptoms of menopause, which can be a roller coaster of feeling happy and then feeling anxious or upset rather quickly. About 20 percent of women experience depression during menopause. Estrogen loss can be a contributing factor, but it’s not the only cause of sudden changes in mood or mental health. This time in a woman’s life presents many social changes that often lead to increased stress. Regular physical activity can help relieve drastic mood swings. So can regular sex (irony!). You should also avoid processed foods and sugar, which negatively impact mood.
Menopausal fatigue is a common sign of hormonal imbalance. In fact, it’s one of the most commonly reported symptoms of menopause. Up to 92 percent of postmenopausal women report feelings of general tiredness. The changes in your hormones can affect your adrenal glands, resulting in decreased energy levels or exhaustion. It is very important to stay hydrated when feeling fatigued while keeping stress to a minimum. Maintaining a healthy diet and reducing caffeine intake might also help boost energy levels. To help combat menopausal fatigue, consider:
- Eating small healthy meals
- Relaxation techniques like meditation and deep breathing
- Exercising earlier in the day, at least three hours before bedtime
8. Body Aches
Menopause can cause body aches, especially in the morning. In fact, more than 60 percent of women report joint and muscle pain during menopause. Dr. McMillan suggests working with your doctor to relieve the pain and asking if magnesium is good for you. Many women report that it helps relax tense muscles. If you don’t do yoga, now may be a good time to start.
Migraine headaches tend to become more common in perimenopause. A fluctuation in estrogen levels are linked to migraines; headaches can increase by 50 to 60 percent during this time. Acupuncture can help. Hormone replacement therapy can also be an effective treatment.
10. Irregular Bleeding
In general, irregular bleeding or spotting is part of perimenopause and is usually not a cause for concern. However, it is crucial that any bleeding be investigated, as it can indicate something more serious. See your doctor to make sure there are no pathological reasons for unusual bleeding.
Is Hormone Therapy the Answer?
The uncomfortable symptoms of menopause are mostly the result of hormonal changes. Hormone therapy, especially bioidentical hormone therapy that uses hormones that are the same as those your body produces (as opposed to synthetic hormones), can be a very effective treatment for all common menopause symptoms. If you’re struggling, ask your doctor if it’s right for you.
A version of this article first appeared at navacenter.com. It has been reprinted with permission.