What Is Menopause?
Signs, Symptoms and How Long It Lasts
Menopause is something every woman will hopefully experience – although most women dread entering menopause. It’s true there can be many unwanted effects thanks to menopause but thankfully there are things you can do to reduce symptom severity and increase your overall well being during this transition.
This article will uncover what menopause is, how long menopause lasts, signs of menopause, as well as menopause supplements and treatments.
What is Menopause?
Menopause signals the end of the reproductive years for a woman. The official menopause definition is the period of time 12 months after your last menstrual cycle, so it’s technically only diagnosed after the fact.
A stop in your period occurs when the ovaries stop making the hormone responsible for the menstrual cycle – estrogen. Estrogen plays a crucial role in sexual and reproductive development in women. The majority of your estrogen is made in your ovaries with some help from the adrenal glands and fat cells.
Estrogen affects other areas including the urinary tract, heart and blood vessels, bone, muscles, skin, hair, pelvic muscles, and brain. This is why symptoms of menopause, due to the drop in estrogen, can affect many body systems.
Not every woman experiences menopause exactly the same way. Some only have a few symptoms while others have several. The severity and duration of symptoms can vary too.
Symptoms can affect many parts of the body because estrogen impacts several areas. As estrogen levels decline, this is when symptoms can appear.
Hot flashes are the most common symptom of menopause and they can linger for many years after menopause. A hot flash is defined as a sudden feeling of heat, usually in the upper part of the body. Women can feel flushed in the face and may even have blotches or what looks like hives appear during these episodes. Sometimes hot flashes can be so severe they wake you up at night. Some women have them every day and even several times a day, and some only have them a few times a week.
Vaginal and Bladder Changes
Other symptoms of menopause include vaginal and bladder health changes. Estrogen plays a key role in many functions of the reproductive system as well as the urinary system. When estrogen decreases, the tissues lining the vaginal and the urethra which depend on estrogen start to atrophy, or break down.
This atrophy causes the vaginal tissue to become drier, potentially making sexual intercourse uncomfortable. Some women notice more bladder irritation and are more susceptible to bladder infections due to a decrease in estrogen. Controlling bladder function can also become more difficult and lead to incontinence, or the inability to hold your bladder.
Change in Sexual Drive
Hormones play a large role in sexual desire, or libido. When estrogen levels decline, women can lose interest in sex or can feel more excited by sex. This can be made worse if vaginal dryness is also present which can make having sex painful. Sex drive and sexual function changes can lead to women avoiding sex to try and reduce pain.
Sleep and Mood Disturbances
Another area a drop in estrogen can affect is sleep. Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep is a sign of menopause and hormonal changes. Along with libido changes, women often experience overall mood changes. They can become more irritable or show signs of depression or anxiety.
Change in Fat Distribution and Muscle Mass
Outward physical effects of menopause include a change in fat distribution and muscle mass. Women can notice they carry fat in different areas like their hips and thighs after menopause and have trouble maintaining muscle. Hair loss can occur during menopause and fingernails can become more brittle.
Although not a symptom you can feel or see outwardly, bone loss occurs during and after menopause due to decreased levels of estrogen. It may seem strange, but there are actually estrogen receptors in the bone.
Estrogen is responsible for reducing the amount of bone resorption – which is the process of bone being broken down. Estrogen does this by lowering the sensitivity of bone mass to parathyroid hormones, increasing the production of calcitonin, increasing calcium resorption, and reducing calcium excretion from the kidneys.
A loss of bone density means your bones aren’t as strong as they once were, increasing your risk of fractures. During menopause and the transition period, bone density loss can be as high as 20%, with the average being around 10%.
Skin changes are common during and after menopause. The decrease in estrogen contributes to changes in how well the cells of the skin proliferate and maintain function. Estrogen plays a role in collagen production – collagen being the protein responsible for the plump, youthful glow of skin.
Estrogen also helps maintain water content in the skin and when estrogen decreases, skin becomes drier and less full. Estrogen additionally helps maintain elasticity in the skin. When elasticity decreases, fine lines and wrinkles appear, and wound healing becomes impaired.
When Does Menopause Start and How Long Does Menopause Last?
Menopause age can vary but tends to occur between the ages of 45 and 55 with the average menopause age being 51 years old. The start of menopause is considered to be 12 months after your last menstrual cycle. Menopause lasts on average 7 years but can extend as long as 14 years for some women.
Some women can have surgical or medication induced menopause. If they’ve had a hysterectomy where they have their ovaries removed or take medications to suppress the hormones produced by the ovaries (estrogen and progesterone) then women enter an induced and sudden menopause.
Menopause can be measured with symptoms but also with lab values. As hormone levels shift, this can be monitored by reviewing blood tests like follicle-stimulating hormone and estradiol levels. However, if you use hormonal methods of birth control, these values will be an inaccurate gauge of menopausal status.
Menopause is measured in three different phases: perimenopause (also called pre or early menopause) which is the time leading up to menopause; menopause, the time period after 12 months of no menstrual cycle; and postmenopause, which is considered any time after you’ve completed menopause.
Postmenopause typically means a decrease in menopause symptoms. Once you are considered ‘postmenopausal’ your risk increases for various health concerns including osteoporosis and heart disease.
The time leading up to menopause is considered pre menopause or perimenopause. Perimenopause refers to the time where your period becomes irregular and eventually stops. Since menopause doesn’t technically begin until after a 12-month lack of a period – that length of time is also considered perimenopause.
Typically the first sign you’re entering perimenopause is a change in your menstrual cycle, or period. They may become longer or shorter. You may start skipping periods or only notice spotting rather than a full cycle.
Premenopause tends to last several years leading up to menopause. Early menopause can begin as early as your mid-30s but most women start to experience symptoms in their 40s. During this time estrogen levels become erratic and levels can increase or decrease greatly.
Signs of early menopause include:
- Irregular period
- Hot flashes
- Sleeping Problems
- Mood changes
- Vaginal changes
- Bladder health problems
- Decreased fertility
- Change in libido
- Bone loss and increased risk of osteoporosis
- Cholesterol level changes
Women with a history of anxiety or depression can be more likely to have a recurrence of these symptoms during early menopause and menopause.
Whether you’re experiencing premenopause symptoms or feel you’ve already entered menopause, thankfully there are several ways to manage them to help you feel your best.
Menopause Supplements, Nutrition, and Fitness
There are tons of interventions you can do at home to reduce the effects of menopause. Taking supplements, focusing on your nutrition, and making time for physical activity can all help ease the transition into menopause and postmenopause.
Supplements for Menopause
You may be familiar with hormone replacement therapy, which involves taking the hormone estrogen and sometimes progestin to offset the symptoms of menopause. However, there are several risk factors associated with hormone replacement therapy including the risk of cancer and blood clot formation.
The risks related to hormone therapy lead many women towards a more natural approach to menopause symptom management. This includes a variety of supplements meant to target common symptoms like hot flashes, mood changes, and trouble sleeping. Other supplements help increase estrogen levels by including plant-based sources of estrogen.
Supplements that may help reduce symptoms of menopause include:
- St. John’s Wort
- Vitamin B6
- Chamomile tea – can help with relaxation and sleep
- Melatonin – a natural supplement to help with falling asleep and staying asleep
- Black Cohosh – may help reduce hot flashes
- Red Clover – although there is no conclusive evidence, some women report improvement in hot flashes with red clover
- Dong Quai – A Traditional Chinese Medicine treatment, Dong Quai may help reduce hot flashes
- Ginseng – may help with mood and sleep issues related to menopause
- Kava – may decrease anxiety and improve mood
- NAOMI Harmony – a clinically proven supplement featuring isoflavones to reduce hot flashes, night sweats, and balance mood.
Menopause and Nutrition
Your nutrition makes a big difference in how you feel and how your body performs, no matter what stage of life you are entering. Focusing on your nutrition and diet can have a large impact on how you feel during the various stages of menopause.
Eating a balanced diet can help reduce the symptoms and burden experienced during your menopause transition. Eating a diet rich in fiber, low in fat, with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables can help fuel your body to weather the hormonal shifts.
Ensuring you’re getting enough calcium and vitamin D is also important during menopause. As estrogen levels decrease, more calcium leaves the bone and enters the bloodstream. This leads to an increase in bone fragility and can increase your risk of fractures. By supplementing with a calcium and vitamin D complex or eating foods high in calcium can help reduce your risk for osteoporosis.
Certain foods can provide estrogenic activity thanks to phytoestrogens. A phytoestrogen mimics the effects of estrogen and therefore helps mitigate the side effects of hormonal shifts. Foods rich in phytoestrogens include:
- Soy products like Tofu and Tempeh
- Sesame seeds
Isoflavones are a specific type of phytoestrogen that can alleviate many of the side effects associated with menopause. Foods high in isoflavones are soybeans, chickpeas, peanuts, and fava beans. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to ingest the number of isoflavones needed to see any noticeable benefits. This is why finding a quality isoflavone supplement can be helpful.
Avoiding alcohol, spicy foods, and caffeine can help reduce the severity of hot flashes.
Another way your diet can help reduce the effects of menopause is to try a ketogenic diet to get your body into a state of ketosis. Ketosis allows for better use and stability of energy, reduced sugar cravings, and reduced appetite. By being in a state of ketosis, your body is better equipped to maintain the healthy function of your skin. The cells and tissue that make up your skin can repair and restore function, therefore reducing the signs of menopause (and aging).
Menopause and Exercise
Exercise is a fantastic way to improve your health and your mood. When estrogen levels decline during and after menopause, you can lose muscle mass and gain excess fat. Exercising helps reduce the risk of weight gain caused by menopause. Many women find practices like yoga and meditation to help improve symptoms of menopause. Exercise can also reduce mood changes associated with menopause symptoms.
Exercising regularly, especially doing weight-bearing exercises like walking and strength training can help maintain bone density. This is another way to help reduce bone loss due to menopause and reduce your risk of fractures.
Being physically active helps reduce your risk of heart disease. Although not directly related, menopause can influence many of the common factors associated with heart disease. This includes weight gain, an increase in blood pressure, as well as increased levels of LDL, or ‘bad’ cholesterol, and a decline in HDL, the ‘good’ cholesterol.
Exercising around the same time each day can help with sleep problems related to menopause. You just want to make sure you don’t exercise too close to bedtime as this can make it more difficult to fall asleep.
Other things you can do to improve sleep issues related to menopause included following a regular schedule – get up and go to bed around the same time each day. Avoid napping in the afternoon and try not to use devices with screens (TV, computer, phone) too close to bedtime as this can interfere with the natural release of melatonin – the hormone responsible for triggering your sleep cycle.
- Menopause is the natural process of a woman finishing her reproductive years, signified by a lack of menstrual cycle for 12 months
- Menopause is caused by the reduction of estrogen production by the ovaries and is due to natural aging or surgical/medical intervention
- The average age of menopause is 51 years old and can last anywhere from 7 to 14 years
- Premenopause or perimenopause refers to the time prior to entering menopause. This period of time can last a few years and carries many of the same symptoms of menopause
- Symptoms of menopause and symptoms of perimenopause include a change in your menstrual cycle, hot flashes, mood changes, vaginal dryness, and bladder health changes
- Supplements can help reduce the symptoms caused by menopause
- A balanced diet, as well as a ketogenic diet, can help you feel your best during menopause
- Exercise can boost your mood during menopause, reduce potential weight gain, and reduce the risk of bone fractures due to loss of bone density during and after menopause