Menopause is a normal condition that all women experience as they age. The term "menopause" can describe any of the changes a woman goes through either just before or after she stops menstruating, marking the end of her reproductive period.
What Causes Menopause?
A woman is born with a finite number of eggs, which are stored in the ovaries. The ovaries also make the hormones estrogen and progesterone, which control menstruation and ovulation. Menopause happens when the ovaries no longer release an egg every month and menstruation stops.
Menopause is considered a normal part of aging when it happens after the age of 40. But some women can go through menopause early, either as a result of surgery, such as hysterectomy, or damage to the ovaries, such as from chemotherapy. Menopause that happens before 40, regardless of the cause, is called premature menopause.
How Does Natural Menopause Happen?
Natural menopause is not brought on by any type of medical or surgical treatment. The process is gradual and has three stages:
Perimenopause - This typically begins several years before menopause, when the ovaries gradually make less estrogen. Perimenopause lasts up until menopause, the point when the ovaries stop releasing eggs. In the last 1 to 2 years of perimenopause, the drop in estrogen quickens. At this stage, many women have menopause symptoms.
In the months or years leading up to menopause (perimenopause), you might experience these signs and symptoms:
Weight gain and slowed metabolism
Thinning hair and dry skin
Loss of breast fullness
Symptoms, including changes in menstruation, are different for every woman. Most likely, you'll experience some irregularity in your periods before they end.
Skipping periods during perimenopause is common and expected. Often, menstrual periods will skip a month and return, or skip several months and then start monthly cycles again for a few months. Periods also tend to happen on shorter cycles, so they are closer together. Despite irregular periods, pregnancy is possible. If you've skipped a period but aren't sure you've started the menopausal transition, consider a pregnancy test.
Menopause. This is the point when it's been a year since a woman last had her last menstrual period. At this stage, the ovaries have stopped releasing eggs and making most of their estrogen.
While menopause is not a disease or disorder, it does trigger some profound changes in a woman's body.
A diagnosis of menopause is confirmed when a woman has not had a menstrual period for one year. However, the symptoms of menopause generally appear before the end of that one-year period.
Changes to the menstrual pattern are the first noticeable symptoms of menopause. Some women may experience a period every 2 to 3 weeks. Others will not menstruate for months at a time.
Dryness, itching, and discomfort of the vagina tend to occur during perimenopause.
As a result, some women may experience dyspareunia, or pain during sex . Women experience this pain due to lowering estrogen levels. These lower levels cause vaginal atrophy.
Vaginal atrophy is an inflammation of the vagina that happens as a result of the thinning and shrinking of the tissues, as well as decreased lubrication.
A hot flash is a sudden sensation of heat in the upper body. It may start in the face, neck, or chest, and progress upward or downward.
The skin may become red and patchy, and a woman will typically start to sweat. Her heart rate may suddenly increase, strengthen, or become irregular. Hot flashes generally occur during the first year after a woman's final period.
Hot flashes that occur during the sleep cycle are called night sweats. Most women say their hot flashes do not last more than a few minutes.
However, studies have confirmed that moderate-to-severe night sweats and hot flashes may pose a problem for around 10.2 years.
It can be difficult for women to fall asleep and stay asleep as they progress through menopause.
In some cases, night sweats can lead to discomfort during the night and difficulty sleeping. Sleep disturbance may also be caused by insomnia or anxiety.
Menopause can disrupt a woman's urinary cycle. Women tend to be more susceptible to urinary tract infections (UTIs) during menopause, such as cystitis. They may also find that they also need to visit the toilet more often.
Women can experience depression and low mood during menopause.
Hormonal changes can often trigger depressed feelings and mood swings. In many cases, these emotional symptoms also go hand-in-hand with sleep disturbance.
Women may also experience low libido, or sex drive, as a result of these emotional changes.
Problems focusing and learning
Menopause can affect cognitive functions, such as concentration. Some women may also experience short-term memory problems and difficulty focusing for long periods.
Other symptoms of menopause include:
A buildup of fat in the abdomen, sometimes leading to overweight and obesity
Hair loss and thinning hair
Without treatment, symptoms usually taper off over a period of 2 to 5 years. However, symptoms can persist for longer. In some cases, vaginal dryness, itching, and discomfort can become chronic and eventually get worse without treatment.
Postmenopause – These are the years after menopause. During this stage, menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes, can ease for many women. But, as a result of a lower level of estrogen, postmenopausal women are at increased risk for a number of health conditions, such as osteoporosis and heart disease. Lifestyle changes, may reduce the risk of some of these conditions. Since every woman's risk is different, talk to your doctor to learn what steps you can take to reduce your individual risk.