For a woman, menopause is inevitable. In many cases, it can also be unpredictable.
Some women have only light or no symptoms at all. Others have many symptoms that can be severe, including hot flashes and night sweats.
While these menopause symptoms may be uncomfortable, they can be managed with lifestyle changes. Treatment options include hormonal and non-hormonal medications.
Menopause is defined as the time in a woman’s life when she ceases to have menstrual periods. The ovaries stop making estrogen, a hormone that helps control the menstrual cycle. The average age that women go through menopause is 51, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
“Because menopause is genetically driven, the strongest predictor of the age of menopause onset is when a woman’s own mother entered it,” says Gay Walker, MD, an internal medicine physician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center Encinitas with a special interest in women’s health issues. “But your mother’s menopause symptoms are not a strong indicator of how easy or difficult your own menopause experience may be.”
The years leading up to natural menopause are known as perimenopause. A common sign is a change in menstrual cycle, which may become longer or shorter. Skipping periods is also common.
Menopause is diagnosed after a woman goes 12 months without a menstural period. Sudden menopause can occur when there is a surgical or medical procedure involved that removes the ovaries or disables normal hormonal functions.
Women nearing menopause may experience a variety of symptoms, including:
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Mood swings or depression
- Vaginal dryness
It’s normal for men and women to experience a small amount of bone loss as they grow older. But women lose bone more rapidly during the first four to eight years after menopause. Their risk increases for developing osteoporosis, a condition where the bones become brittle and fragile. Exercising regularly can slow down bone loss and lower the risk of fractures.
Lifestyle can have an impact on menopause symptoms. Research shows that women who maintain a healthy weight tend to have fewer hot flashes and night sweats.
“Fit women of a normal, healthy body weight typically have fewer problems with hot flashes and night sweats, so the first thing I do for menopausal patients is encourage women to work on themselves,” says Dr. Walker.
It’s never too late to start or return to regular exercising, she adds.
“Too many women put themselves last when they’re in their 20s and 30s because of family and career obligations. In their 40s, when kids are leaving the nest, it’s a great time for them to take care of their bodies, get back to a healthy weight and start exercising again.”
A healthy lifestyle can help you manage the symptoms of menopause, including:
- Eating a balanced, nutritious diet before, during, and after menopause
- Make sure to get enough vitamin D and calcium to ensure bone health
- Getting regular medical checkups even if you are not sick can help catch problems early
Since every woman has a different health history and lifestyle, the most effective treatment plans for menopause really depend on individual needs. Treatment options may include hormonal and non-hormonal medications:
Talk to your doctor about non-hormonal medications to treat hot flashes.
Some prescribed medications, such as anti-depressants, have demonstrated benefits improving symptoms. “Other medications prescribed off-label, including an anti-seizure medication and a blood pressure control medication, may offer relief and are included in guidelines issued by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology,” says Dr. Walker.
Moisturizers and lubricants that can be purchased over the counter can help with vaginal dryness and painful sexual intercourse that may occur during menopause. Moisturizers can be used every 2 to 3 days as needed. Lubricants can be used each time you have sex.
Hormone replacement therapy uses estrogen and progesterone to raise hormone levels and help provide relief of hot flashes and night sweats.
It can also protect against osteoporosis, have a positive effect on cholesterol levels and help with vaginal lubrication.
However, it has risks. Studies indicate hormone therapy may increase the risk of certain types of cancer, including breast cancer, stroke and heart attacks. Women are now urged to weigh the risks and benefits of hormone therapy with their doctor.