A misconception about menopause is that it’s going to be linear. That as your ovaries shut down somewhere between 45 and 55 (on average) your periods become irregular then stop. Far from it.
Though symptoms are different for everyone, menstrual cycles typically take a roller coaster ride between spotting and a tsunami at any given time before disappearing completely. If you’re lucky, you may not experience much. But some women experience such heavy and erratic bleeding they have to pack 20-plus super-size pads everywhere they go, in the equivalent of a menopause diaper bag.
The only certainty is that each of us is unique, and according to Dr. Pamela Peeke — author of Body for Life for Women and bestseller Fight Fat After Forty, professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and an adjunct senior scientist at the National Institute of Health — unfortunately, our bodies give us no clues as to how it’s going to go.
“If you’ve had a life of horrific PMS and heavy periods, it doesn’t mean menopause is going to be worse for you than for women who’ve had light periods and little to no PMS. Our waning ovaries can tease us — stopping our period for months then gasping again before menopause is official: only after 12 consecutive months with absolutely no bleeding. That’s one whole year, no periods. If you see even the slightest amount of blood during that time, hold on tight! Because the 12-month counter starts all over again.”
Muffin Top and Menopot
We hate to be the bearer of bad news. But there’s no getting around it: Decreased estrogen and slower metabolism means you’re going to pick up a bit more fat around the middle — even if you’re lean or super fit — thanks to a whole shift in body composition.
Peeke says it like it is. “More fat starts to show in the upper body. Your breasts may increase a whole cup size. You may see more fat around your armpits, feel a bit more flab hanging over the sides [of your bra], and more fat may appear under your breasts in the general belly area. I call this a ‘meno-pot’ instead of muffin top. It’s your menopause pot belly.”
Giving up and resigning yourself to believing that menopause is going to send your body to hell in a handbasket, no matter what you do, is not going to make the matter any better.
Though women need fewer calories as we age, and Peeke says menopausal weight gain “shouldn’t be more than 5 pounds-ish,” she’s quick to point out that this is not the reality in our more sedentary society, where we cook less and eat out more. Frustratingly — just as with all menopause symptoms — whether you gain a little or a lot depends. It could be 3 pounds and no big deal, or it could be 30, 40, even 50 pounds. It all depends on a convergence of things, including hormone fluctuations, depression, and your attitude. Giving up and resigning yourself to believing that menopause is going to send your body to hell in a handbasket, no matter what you do, is not going to make the matter any better.
Peeke is adamant about this last point. “If you walk into menopause freaking out with an ‘out-of-my-mind’ attitude, you’ll have more of an issue.” She says women need to prepare themselves by getting healthy and staying healthy with regular exercise (including strength training and cross training) and eating a clean diet focused on lean protein and vegetables.
And, she adds, keeping calm is key. “You absolutely must also practice stress resilience as well, and take care of the three Ms — all of them: Mouth (get good nutrition), Muscle (regular physical activity), and Mind (practice meditation). Yoga alone won’t do it. You need to do all three.”
Ultimately, Peeke concludes, to help us cope with the symptoms of menopause, we need to rethink our body image, develop a new normal for how we define beauty for ourselves — and be happy with it. Because menopause is going to happen no matter what.
Herbal Supplements That May Help
Some women swear by hormone replacement therapy. The Fine Line founder Sue Cowie is one of them. She says it changed her life. But if you don’t want to treat your symptoms with HRT or medications, talk to your doctor about herbal supplements that may help, and be sure to discuss any side effects or drug interactions with medications you take.
Here are five that you and your doctor might consider, knowing that whether they work on symptoms varies greatly from woman to woman.
- Black cohosh helps decrease the frequency and severity of hot flashes.
- Chaste berry can help with breast pain and soreness.
- Dong quai has been shown to help with hot flashes and headaches.
- Ginseng helps reduce the number and frequency of hot flashes and improves mood.
- Red clover extract works on hot flashes.