Regardless of their age, most women are familiar with the symptoms of menopause. However, what many people do not realize is that there are three distinct stages to menopause: perimenopause, menopause and postmenopause.
Perimenopause is the few years leading up to menopause. During this time, hormone levels begin to fall and many of the typical menopause symptoms begin. These include:
- Irregular periods
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Mood changes
- Vaginal dryness
- Dry skin, eyes and mouth
- Reduced libido
These symptoms can last for several years before the menopause itself takes place. A woman is officially classed as menopausal once she has not had a period for 12 months or more. This is when the postmenopausal stage begins.
So, what can you expect once you have been through menopause and come out the other side? Let’s take a closer look.
What Are the Signs of Coming to the End of Menopause?
Once you have come to the end of menopause, there are number of different signs and symptoms you might experience. However, every woman’s journey through menopause is unique, and not everybody will experience every one of these postmenopausal symptoms.
You might have hoped that once you had your last period, symptoms such as hot flashes would stop. However, your hormone levels can continue to fluctuate for several years after this and so hot flashes and the like can still be a problem for some women.
Although some menopausal symptoms may continue for as long as eight years after menopause, they should stop eventually. Something to look forward to at least!
As your estrogen levels fall, it becomes easier to put on weight, especially around your waist. You may also notice other changes, such as sagging breasts, as your weight distribution begins to change.
Fortunately, weight gain does not have to be part and parcel of menopause. You can stay in shape by eating well and exercising regularly; you just might have to work a little bit harder than before.
Increased Risk of Heart Disease
After menopause, women are at an increased risk of heart disease. This is because falling estrogen levels can increase the risk of atherosclerosis, a condition which causes hard plaques to build up on the walls of the blood vessels making them narrower and less flexible. Many women also find that their blood pressure increases following menopause, further increasing the risk of heart disease.
The best way to reduce this risk is by making some simple lifestyle changes. Eat a healthy, balanced diet that is rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, lean protein and whole grains, while reducing your intake of processed, fatty and sugary foods. Reduce your alcohol intake and, if you smoke, stop as soon as you can.
If you are at an especially high risk of heart disease due to your family history, your doctor may recommend that you start taking medication to reduce your cholesterol and blood pressure as a preventative measure.
Women experiencing menopause or pregnancy often face similar symptoms. However, there are some differences in symptoms between the two.
Increased Risk of Osteoporosis
Lower estrogen levels can also increase the risk of osteopenia (low bone mineral density) and osteoporosis (brittle bones). This happens because calcium is absorbed into the bones less readily, making them weaker and increasing the risk of fractures.
You can protect your bones and reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis by increasing your intake of calcium and vitamin D. You can do this by eating more foods that are rich in these nutrients or by taking a daily supplement.
Foods that are rich in calcium include:
- Dairy products
- Leafy greens (e.g. cabbage and broccoli, but not spinach)
- Soy beans and tofu
- Small fish with edible bones such as sardines
- Fortified bread and breakfast cereals
The best natural source of vitamin D is sunlight. However, there are some foods that are rich in vitamin D and these include:
- Oily fish (sardines, mackerel and salmon)
- Fortified margarine
- Fortified breakfast cereals
You can find out whether you are at risk of osteoporosis by asking your doctor for a bone mineral density scan.
As your hormone levels decrease, so can your sex drive. Coupled with vaginal dryness that can make intercourse uncomfortable, this could spell real trouble for your sex life.
Luckily, there are plenty of ways around this intimate problem. Using estrogen creams can help keep your vagina moist and elastic, and there are plenty of lubricants on the market that can reduce discomfort and increase pleasure. If you are having difficulty getting aroused, talk to your partner about what is going on and work together to find a solution. Sex therapy is an option if you really find yourself struggling.
Lack of estrogen means your urinary tract can become less elastic over time. This can lead to problems such as needing to urinate more frequently or urgently, or leaking when you cough or laugh.
This is another area where estrogen creams may help, and you can also strengthen your bladder by practicing regular Kegel exercises. Avoiding drinks containing caffeine or alcohol and acidic drinks such as fruit juice may also help.
Many women find their memory suffers following menopause. This could be due to changing hormone levels combined with poor sleep as a result of hot flashes and night sweats.
It is normal for your memory to decline slightly with age, but if you are concerned, ask your doctor to run some tests.
With so many drastic changes happening at once, it is no wonder that many menopausal women feel depressed.
Firstly, fluctuating hormone levels can affect the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine, both of which are associated with controlling your mood. In addition, many women have a negative attitude toward aging and can feel depressed about their changing bodies and place in the world.
The good news is that while as many as 20% of menopausal women experience some depressive symptoms, these generally decrease during the postmenopausal stage. So, while in the short-term menopause can be a distressing time, it is possible to emerge feeling even better than before!