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What Exactly is Menopause? Is It Really for the Rest of My Life?

    Ah, the journey through menopause… No definitive starting line, a rarely spoken-about finishing line, odd diversions, and an estimated time of arrival that could span years. Menopause is certainly one of the greatest journeys a woman will go on. And all women could definitely use a GPS to help navigate through their symptoms. Instead, rarely anyone has even told them what the journey would involve. The reality is that most women will have menopausal symptoms without being “fully” in menopause. Also, after women have made the full transition into menopause, they may still experience symptoms that can last for a long time.


    Many women are left unprepared and wonder what they will go through, and to what extent these changes will last. What they need to know is that menopause, though technically ‘one day’ after 12 months of absent menstruation, is a thirty plus year state, with a broad range of different symptoms. The typical age of full onset of menopause is about 50 years old, and peri-menopause refers to the 10-year period after age 40 in which ovarian function starts to fall. These changes will last for the rest of your life. Luckily, with the right information and support, the symptoms during menopause does not have to stop you from doing anything, but instead, enjoy the journey. However, before you embark on the journey, and potentially enjoy it, let’s take a look.

    Two women chatting about menopause symptoms

    So what happens on the journey?

    There are the eight infamous “i”s of menopause to understand some of the icky parts of the journey better.  These “i”’s all relate to loss of hormones as our ovaries decline in function and produce less of key hormones such as estrogen (the female hormone), progesterone (the nurturing hormone) and testosterone (the libido hormone).


    Let’s start with infertility. The ovaries produce the hormones estrogen and progesterone, which control menstruation and ovulation. Over time, those numbers of eggs decrease, and the quality of the remaining eggs also decreases, resulting in a decline in fertility. For most women, there’s an emotional association of menopause with loss of fertility. And, indeed, that is what the definition of menopause is: the lack of a period for 12 months due to shutting down of the ovaries and corresponding infertility.


    Then there is insomnia. Sleep changes include difficulty going to sleep or falling asleep quickly only to spring wide-awake several times a night or every hour on the hour. This is due to the decline of hormone production, predominantly, estrogen. Estrogen is responsible for promoting healthy sleep. Estrogen also helps the body use serotonin and other neurochemicals that assist sleep. Estrogen contributes to higher-quality sleep, with fewer awakenings throughout the night, and less time needed to fall asleep.


    Next, women become irritable. Mood changes often occur around the time of perimenopause and menopause when hormone levels are decreasing. The hormonal changes that come from menopause can have a significant impact on women’s mood; and the hormone imbalances cause many women to overreact to things that never used to faze them. Thus, women will experience mood swings, sadness, and even rage during this transitional period.


    Increased itching is something that some women may also experience due to changes to their skin during menopause. They may notice itchiness on their body, face, or genitals. Again the hormonal change the body is going through during menopause is the culprit . Especially because of the vital role the hormone estrogen plays in skin health.


    To follow, it is common for women to experience urinary incontinence. Bladder weakness is something that affects many women going through menopause. Some women think that incontinence is an inevitable part of the ageing process. It isn’t and there are ways to prevent and treat this if it does happen. Bladder weakness usually starts in the perimenopause stage as levels of estrogen start to drop. Estrogen is responsible for causing the urethral and vaginal tissues to thin. Then as women age, pelvic floor muscles start to relax. Both of these factors can lead to urinary incontinence.


    And thanks to urinary incontinence, women are more at risk of developing infections. As estrogen production declines, urinary tract infections (UTIs) can occur more frequently. You may also have trouble fully emptying your bladder, which can increase the chance of an infection in your bladder.

    Also, as you age, your vaginal tissue thins, making it more prone to vaginal infections. Bacterial vaginosis (BV) and complicated vulvovaginal candidiasis (VVC) are frequently occurring vaginal infections in postmenopausal women.

    Woman consulting doctor on symptoms of menopause
    An older woman in her kitchen, in the midst of cooking

    Insufficient memory: many women are getting more forgetful during perimenopause and as they approach menopause – which is due to decreasing levels of estrogen, again. You may lose your train of thought, misplace items, or forget appointments as estrogen levels in the body drop.


    Last, but not least, women begin to experience the onset of instant hot flashes. – ok this “i” was a bit of a stretch… However: hot flashes are a common symptom of perimenopause or approaching menopause that many women find distressing. They are sudden waves of heat and flushing that often occur on the upper portion of the body. Red blotches may appear on the face, chest, and arms at the same time. Sweating heavily is also a common symptom related to hot flashes. This will often interfere with sleep. Decreased hormone levels are again responsible for these symptoms.


    It is important to understand that some symptoms will deteriorate and worsen over time – but there’s something a woman can do. Depending on the severity and how much the symptoms affect day-to-day activities, there are steps a woman should take to help alleviate and support her body through this time. The key component is to bring balance to the hormones again. There is no quick fix for doing this. This takes time and requires awareness of all aspects in life – diet, exercise, relaxation, reduction of chemicals in personal products and environment. 


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