Many things can happen in a woman’s body because of the changes in hormone patterns that begin during the menopausal transition. Some women are bothered by only a few symptoms during perimenopause. Others are very uncomfortable, while the rest hardly feel any different.
Scientists are still trying to understand how the hormone changes during the menopausal transition may affect a woman’s periods and menopausal symptoms.
Menopause is only one of several stages in the reproductive life of a woman. The entire menopause transition is divided into distinct stages known as premature menopause, premenopause, perimenopause, menopause, and postmenopause.
Menopause is brought on by low levels of estrogen and progesterone and can cause symptoms such as irregular periods, hot flashes, vaginal dryness, memory loss and difficulty concentrating, insomnia and fatigue, frequent urination and mood swings.
Premature menopause is menopause that occurs before the age of 40, whether it is natural or induced by medical or surgical means. Women who enter menopause early have symptoms similar to those of natural menopause, like hot flashes, emotional problems, vaginal dryness and decreased sex drive. However, for some women with premature menopause, these symptoms are severe. Also, women who have premature menopause tend to get weaker bones faster than women who enter menopause later in life.
Perimenopause marks the time when your body begins its move into menopause. It includes the years leading up to menopause — anywhere from 2 to 8 years — plus the first year after your final period. There is no way to predict how long perimenopause will last or how long it will take you to go through it. It’s a natural part of a woman’s life that signals the ending of her reproductive years.
Menopause is a normal change in a woman’s life when her period stops. It is often called the “change of life.” During menopause, which usually occurs between the ages of 45 and 55, a woman’s body slowly makes less of the hormones estrogen and progesterone. A woman has reached menopause when she has not had a period for 12 months in a row, and there are no other causes for this change.
Eighty-five percent of the women in the United States experience hot flashes of some kind as they approach menopause and for the first year or two after their periods stop. Hot flashes are mostly caused by the hormonal changes of menopause, but can also be affected by lifestyle and medications. A diminished level of estrogen has a direct effect on the part of the brain (hypothalamus) responsible for controlling your appetite, sleep cycles, sex hormones and body temperature. Somehow, the drop in estrogen confuses the hypothalamus — which is sometimes referred to as the body’s “thermostat”—and makes it read “too hot.”
The brain responds to this report by broadcasting an all-out alert to the heart, blood vessels, and nervous system: “Get rid of the heat!” This message is delivered instantly. Your heart pumps faster, the blood vessels in your skin dilate to circulate more blood to radiate off the heat, and your sweat glands release sweat to cool you off even more.
This heat-releasing mechanism is how the body keeps from overheating in the summer, but when the process is triggered instead by a drop in estrogen, your brain’s confused response can make you very uncomfortable. Some women’s skin temperature can rise six degrees during a hot flash.
Together with progesterone, another female hormone made by the ovaries, estrogen regulates the changes that occur with each monthly period and prepares the uterus for pregnancy. Prior to menopause, more than 90 percent of the estrogen in a woman’s body is made by the ovaries. Other organs (including the adrenal glands, liver and kidneys) also make small amounts of estrogen. That’s why women continue to have low levels of estrogen after menopause. Because fat cells can also make small amounts of estrogen, women who are overweight when they are going through menopause may have fewer problems with hot flashes and osteoporosis (both of which are related to lack of estrogen).
Headaches are one of the most common and disturbing symptoms women can suffer from during menopause. Menopause migraines and headaches can last between four to 72 hours. Anxiety and other forms of emotional daily stress, overwork and fatigue can cause menopause migraines and headaches. Because the most probable cause of migraines & headaches during menopause is hormone imbalance, it is generally felt that declining estrogen hormones are responsible for these migraines and headaches. In short, when hormones fluctuate, blood vessels in the brain overreact, causing headaches and migraines. Therefore, when estrogen hormones start dropping, it is very probable that migraines will become more frequent and more intense. This can happen in menopause or even when a woman has her normal periods (in which hormonal fluctuations also occur). Therefore, the best way to avoid migraines & headaches during menopause is to keep a healthy, balanced level of estrogen hormones.
Although there is very little scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of “natural” therapies for menopausal symptoms, it is possible that some “natural” therapies may provide some relief to women during the menopausal transition. Here are two important points to keep in mind if you are considering these therapies:
• Tell your health care providers about any complementary and alternative practices you use. Give them a full picture of what you do to manage your health. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.
• “Natural” does not automatically mean “safe.” As noted earlier, botanical and other dietary supplements can interact with each other and with prescription and over-the-counter drugs, affecting how the body reacts.
There is a direct relationship between the lack of estrogen during perimenopause and menopause and the development of osteoporosis.
One of the most important demographic aspects of osteoporosis is that it occurs more in cities of first world countries like the U.S., the UK and Canada, where people eat dairy products and red meat. There are several theories suggesting that the artificially treated milk and other dairy products are not digested the way they should be. Moreover, when a woman adds red meat to our diet, it may cause leaching way of calcium from her bones and teeth. Thus, making our bones porous and fragile. There is substantial evidence that eating protein rich diet is also not good for our bones. These eating practices are not common in third world countries and in rural areas where people follow traditional way of life and eat traditional leafy vegetables. Hence, the percentage of people suffering from osteoporosis in third world countries is lower than in developed countries. Osteoporosis is lowest in southern African countries where people eat more leafy vegetables and less dairy products.
Apart from this, women particularly in developed countries consume more alcohol and their diet is rich in meats, white flour and dairy products including cheese and butter. Women’s in western countries also smoke. Smoking leads to increased bone mass loss. Smoking also impairs the action of estrogen, which naturally protects bone mass. There is plenty of evidence that smoking causes a significant increase in the risk of development of osteoporosis.
Women who are looking for alternative treatments should know that certain lifestyle changes can contribute to healthy aging, including during the menopausal transition. For example, quitting smoking, eating a healthy diet, and exercising regularly have been shown to reduce the risks of heart disease and osteoporosis.
Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one. Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended, nor implied, to be a substitute for professional medical advice.
Glenn Ellis is a health advocacy communications specialist. He is the author of “Which Doctor?” and is a health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, and is an active media contributor nationally and internationally on health related topics.
His second book, “Information is the Best Medicine,” was released in January 2012. For more good health information, visit: www.glennellis.com.