There comes a time in life when menstruating people start to experience peculiar changes in their bodies, they feel worse, and have mood swings. Menopause usually happens when you’re around your 50th year of age and is generally not an easy experience. How to survive the inevitable? Is it always so black as they paint it? Let’s have a look at the reasons why menopause is so demonised and what to do to break the curse.
7 min. reading time • Text: Dominika Gajewska
Illustration: Jarek Danilenko
Are you starting to complain of various discomforts hindering your day-to-day activities? Or perhaps someone you know faces similar hardships? Well, hello. You’re in the right place! If you menstruate, menopause is lurking somewhere behind the corner. However, knowing more about it will help you get through it dry-shod or offer a helping hand to someone in need. We usually fret about the things we’re unfamiliar with. Which is why I’ll do my best to walk you, step by step, through all the stages of menopause and show you that the devil is not as black as he’s painted… :)
Let’s have a look at it from two perspectives: biological and a more theoretical one. Doctors refer to menopause as climacterium but you may also come across a more colloquial expression — hot flashes. However you choose to call it, it means one thing — the stage of life of a menstruating person whose ovaries stopped producing hormones and who, as a result, ceased to have monthly menstrual bleeding. We can confirm menopause when there’s been no bleeding for twelve months. It’s often described as the period between the childbearing age and the beginning of old age.
Climacterium is a natural process during which the follicular activity of the ovaries declines. Then, the concentration of reproductive hormones in the organism changes gradually — the concentrations of the FSH, i.e. the follicle-stimulating hormone, and the LH, i.e. luteinising hormone, increase. This, in turn, results in the decrease in estrogen concentration. These hormonal changes are conducive to permanent loss of fertility, the cycles becoming anovulatory, and the menstruation bleedings more irregular. Somewhere along the line comes the last period, after which menstruation ceases altogether.
Every organism is different and the symptoms of climacterium come at various times with distinct levels of intensity. The hormonal changes connected to menopause appear usually between the 45th and 55th year of age. It sometimes also happens that the first signs of menopause can be experienced even before you’re forty. However, what we’re dealing with then is a phenomenon referred to as premature menopause.
Fortunately, menopause doesn’t happen overnight. All the symptoms experienced together could bear significant effects on our health. It’s a process heralded by other stages — each one may last for years. We distinguish premenopause, i.e. the period before the actual menopause begins, which lasts from 4 to 10 years, and perimenopause, which starts approximately 3-4 years before menopause and ends during the first year of the “proper” one. The culmination point is, of course, menopause itself, i.e. the last period, after which for the next twelve months there are no menstruation bleedings. After all that we’re dealing with postmenopause, i.e. the entire period after the last menstruation.
At first glance, menopause may feel like a relief and something that you’ve been waiting for to happen your whole life. After all, who doesn’t complain every month about period and PMS? So menopause seems to be the end of the regular suffering — especially for those who experience unusually heavy bleedings and complain of additional difficulties. Yet, climacterium is undoubtedly a tough nut to crack — tiring mood swings, worse overall health, and the awareness that the most productive (in terms of hormones) time of our life is slipping through our fingers.
Menopause is thus often demonised by people; however, the severity of the symptoms depends entirely on your individual organism. It often happens that the symptoms are mild and the stress totally unnecessary. This stage of life is, in fact, connected to specific physical conditions; however, we shouldn’t forget that they don’t all have to occur and that they may vary in terms of intensity and duration — they might die down quickly or come and go over several years, both in the premenopausal and postmenopausal stages.
We must remember that every organism is different and not everyone will have the same symptoms of climacterium. The same goes with the time when they appear, which may differ from one person to another — some might experience the first symptoms a few years prior to the actual menopause, others might have them just a few months before. What changes in the organism during menopause?
The first sign of climacterium is, among other things, a distorted menstruation cycle — irregular periods and variations in the intensity of bleeding. Often, you may experience hot flashes, substantial sweating (during the day and night, impeding your sleep), mood swings, and changes in weight. Other than that, you can also have many different symptoms of menopause — be it physical, mental, or emotional.
The first things that you’ll be able to see with your naked eye, as well as the things others will inevitably notice, are the changes of your body. People in the premenopausal stage observe the increase in weight, even though their dietary habits remain the same. The body becomes less supple and it gets more difficult to lose the extra kilograms. The skin becomes limper, drier, and more sun-sensitive. We also begin to lose hair more rapidly.
Yet, the changes aren’t only external but also take place inside our organisms. We might experience bone and joint pain, especially in arms, knees, and back. There are also higher risks of osteoporosis, that is losing bone density, and heart diseases. Palpitation, arterial pressure rise, and the increase of blood cholesterol concentration may occur. Urinary infections and incontinence, as well as dizziness and fatigue, happen more frequently.
The reproductive system, besides the lack of menstruation, also undergoes some major changes. There’s a higher risk of vaginal infections, vaginal dryness and changes in the pH balance, that is vaginal atrophy. These result in the decrease in sex drive — due to the lack of the natual lubricant vaginal sex is not as pleasurable as it used to be; moreover, it often comes with pain and irritation. All these changes are results of hormonal variations taking place in our organisms.
Apart from the physical ailments you should also prepare for those more mental in nature. The aforementioned hormonal changes might cause heightened irritability, general malaise, and, possibly, frequent mood swings. We might also face anxiety, which is not necessarily connected to the hormonal processes — climacterium often coincides with the thoughts of retirement, the time when children leave the nest, and the challenge of reorganising our lives.
Such changes might feel a bit overwhelming — we’re suddenly confronted with aging and some inevitable adjustments in various areas of life. We usually don’t get too much support from the society — menopause is most often passed over in silence; we rarely have an opportunity to talk about our experiences with others and it’s also difficult to discuss the issue with our loved ones. Many people worry that being unable to produce offspring renders them less worthy. Such thoughts easily contribute to a lower sense of one’s own attractiveness.
The subject of mental problems of people who go through menopause is increasingly put forward — depression being the main issue. People who are the most vulnerable to depression are those who had prior mental health problems, have been treated for depression, and took medicines for it. All physical ailments, bad mood, and lack of a shoulder to cry on might result in the deterioration of our mental state.
Which is why it’s important to talk, share your anxiety with your loved ones, and support those who may need that during this difficult period. Keep in mind that menopause is not something to be ashamed of — each and every menstruating person will have to deal with it eventually! If necessary, it’s advisable to go to a specialist who might help us get through this rough patch and, if needed, can prescribe us proper medicines.
One of the most common symptoms of climacterium are the hot flashes — at least that’s what the stereotype says. Statistics show that it afflicts 55-75% of menstruating people. Hot flashes and night sweats may be very annoying during menopause. So how to deal with the symptoms? There are a few ways to alleviate not only hot flashes, but also other nagging symptoms of climacterium.
One such way is to keep a healthy and diverse diet. Additionally, you don’t want to sink into your couch, so maybe you’d consider setting your heart on an extra walk or jog in the park! As far as eating is concerned, you should eat at fixed times and your meals should contain fruit and vegetables as well as wholegrain and low-fat products. It’s wise to cut down on proteins and replace them with products of vegetable origin. The same goes for animal fat — you should consider switching to more healthy fats, such as linseed oil. During menopause you should consume less salt as it might intensify the ailments connected to climacterium. As was said before, it’s good to move a little and maintain physical activity suitable to age and your body’s capabilities. Regular walks, swimming, or yoga will do wonders for your menopausal state and will help you keep a good mood.
The majority of changes which take place in our bodies during menopause has a common source — variations in the hormonal balance. Over time, ovaries produce less and less estrogen, so numerous functions of our bodies in which the hormone plays a vital role are put out of order. Some people decide to take hormone therapy to alleviate the nagging symptoms. The HRT method relies on supplying the organism with the missing hormones in order to equalise their levels. However, HRT has faced heavy criticism as, according to some, it only puts off the discomforts rather than nullifies them, simultaneously disrupting natural processes. There are also multiple contraindications — cancer and thromboembolism, to name but a few.
It’s worth discussing it with your doctor. Based on hormone levels tests you’ll get comprehensive information on the potential benefits and threats connected to the HRT method. Truth be told, discussions with your doctor should, from now on, become your routine — during menopause it’s advisable to have extra blood tests, as well as visit your gynaecologist more often. After you cease to menstruate the risk of getting osteoporosis is higher, which is why check-ups, including bone density examinations or blood analyses, should become regular, according to the doctor’s orders, of course.
I must admit: it doesn’t look peachy and optimistic — tiring ailments, changes in the body, permanent loss of fertility… Yet, in reality, so much depends on the way we approach the issue. It’s definitely the end of one stage of life. However, why not turn the tables and treat menopause as a new beginning, a new chapter in our lives?
The life satisfaction of women aged 50-70 was studied by female researchers from the University of Melbourne, Australia. They began with a case study on the decrease of depression symptoms in women above the age of 50. The research material gathered allowed the researchers to come to some interesting conclusions which do not correspond to the image of an edgy woman, unable to reconcile with evanescence. The overwhelming majority of the studied women declared that they were more laid-back, which translated to an improved quality of life. There were voices saying that sex is better when you don’t have to worry about pregnancy anymore, which, at this age, would be a huge strain on your body. Children finally leaving the nest contribute to their parents having a lot more time to travel or seek new hobbies. More than 80% of the research group claimed that they felt equally feminine as before the menopause, and around 60% said that it was the best time of their lives! Let’s not forget that it’s also the time when we get to enjoy the fructification of our life’s work — both material and spiritual.
So do we have to worry, really? And, most importantly, is it worth it to worry in advance? Not necessarily. The risk of suffering from unpleasant ailments during menopause may be reduced by a proper diet and daily physical activity. A change in your mental attitude may be a bit more complicated; however, it’s worth it to take this challenge and peacefully surrender to what’s ahead of you. Perhaps this new life might turn out to be as intense and beautiful as it is now. So you should approach the period of menopause with ease, keep in mind to maintain relationships with your loved ones, and take care of your organism. Treat your body and mind in the best way you can and enjoy your life!
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