Menopause is a reality for all women. Although the age you begin your transition and the symptoms you have might differ from your family and friends, menopause is a shared experience that’s more understood now than ever before. During this time, it’s important that you take time to take care of your body and mind. Exercise, get sleep, eat healthily and spend time destressing to help make all your symptoms easier to manage and mitigate the potential for health risks, chronic stress, anxiety or depression.
The sometimes-drastic changes a woman's body endures at the end of the reproductive cycles can increase the chance of health problems like osteoporosis and heart disease. Planning ahead for these troubles and getting the necessary vitamins and minerals can help make your transition into menopause and post-menopause easier and safer.
Table of Contents
- What is menopause?
- The stages of menopause
- Symptoms of menopause
- Long-term risks of menopause
- Traditional and holistic menopause treatments
Learning more about menopause, its symptoms, its health risks and ways to manage the transition can set you up for a lifetime of health and happiness.
What is menopause?
Even though all women will reach menopause at some point in their lives, not all may understand what the term actually means. Really, menopause is a specific point in time that denotes when a woman’s body has drastically reduced the amount of estrogen it produces, and she has stopped menstruating. You are officially considered menopausal when you’ve gone 12 consecutive months without a period.
Of course, many women use “menopause” to discuss the bodily changes—including symptoms like hot flashes and mood swings and the hormonal fluctuations—that occur over the course of a few years. Most women will experience this transitional period—the lead-up to menopause—between the ages of 40 and 55. At the end of those changes is menopause, when hormones like estrogen stabilize at lower levels and your ability to menstruate or conceive a child is over.
The stages of menopause
Menopause does not happen overnight. Instead, it is marked by periods of transition as your body gradually reduces the amount of estrogen it produces. Thus, doctors might use a few different terms to denote where you are in your menopause journey.
The term “pre-menopause” is used to describe any woman who has not yet reached menopause. This could be a young woman who has regular periods and is capable of reproducing, a middle-aged woman who has not yet begun the menopause transition or a woman who has begun experiencing symptoms of perimenopause but is still having irregular periods.
Perimenopause is the stage most women think of when they think of menopause. This term describes the years-long transition between regular menstrual cycles and menopause. Perimenopause typically begins in your 40s and can last as little as a few months or as long as 10 or more years.
It’s during perimenopause that most women experience disruptive symptoms, such as headaches, mood swings, insomnia, brain fog and hot flashes. These symptoms are caused by the body’s fluctuating levels of estrogen and progesterone as it prepares to end menstruation. Many women in perimenopause also experience irregular periods due to these hormonal changes.
As mentioned above, menopause is the specific point in time when the body stops menstruating. At this point in your life, your estrogen levels will be greatly reduced, and your reproductive cycle will end.
You technically enter menopause after your last period. However, it takes 12 months without a period to confirm that you are menopausal. Most women reach menopause around the age of 50.
The term “post-menopause” is used to describe women who have completed the menopause transition and now live with reduced estrogen. There are some health risks associated with being post-menopausal, which should be discussed with your doctor.
This last term related to menopause is not necessarily a stage, but a type of menopause some women will experience: early menopause. Early menopause is when a woman reaches menopause—stops menstruating completely—before the age of 45.
Early or premature menopause can occur naturally, but it’s most often related to another factor, such as an autoimmune condition, medical intervention (like removing the ovaries at a young age), medication and even smoking. Unfortunately, women who experience early menopause face a higher risk of health problems like heart disease and osteoporosis due to estrogen’s vital role in women’s health.
Symptoms of menopause
One of the biggest reasons many women dread menopause is because the transitional period can bring about a range of unpleasant symptoms. While there’s no guarantee that you’ll experience any or all of these symptoms, most women deal with at least a few during perimenopause and after menopause.
Hot flashes or night sweats
Hot flashes and night sweats are some of the most common and frustrating menopause symptoms women complain of. When hot flashes come on, they might cause sweating, facial and body flushing and chills. Night sweats are similar but occur during sleep. This symptom typically starts during perimenopause.
Mood swings are also very common throughout perimenopause. This symptom largely occurs because your levels of estrogen and progesterone are constantly in flux—think of it like a persistent case of premenstrual syndrome.
Menopause-induced brain fog might appear as short-term memory loss, difficulty concentrating, decreased alertness and slower or impaired cognition. Many women experience brain fog as they near menopause because of reduced estrogen, which plays a role in activating the hippocampus in the brain. Thankfully, most women stop having brain fog after they officially enter menopause.
Fluctuating hormone levels have been known to cause frequent “hormonal headaches” in some women during perimenopause. Usually, women who have developed headaches around their period in the past are most susceptible to menopause-induced headaches. These headaches should stop after menopause.
Both women in perimenopause and post-menopause may complain of trouble sleeping. There are a number of factors that might cause sleep disruption during menopause, including physical symptoms like night sweats and mental challenges like anxiety. These problems might wake you in the middle of night or prevent you from falling asleep entirely.
Hair thinning and hair loss are two symptoms that can be quite damaging to your self-esteem as you age. Although women typically don’t develop bald spots, reduced estrogen can affect the size of your hair follicles. After you shed hair, the new hair may grow in much thinner, making your scalp look sparse and your hair weak and limp.
As perimenopause persists, you may find that you’re less interested in sex than you use to be. Reduced libido is extremely common in menopausal women, and multiple things might contribute to it. Naturally, irregular periods, mood swings and general discomfort are not ideal for getting in the mood. Fluctuating hormones may also impact the pleasure you experience during intercourse.
Another reason you might not want to have sex much during perimenopause and after menopause is because of changes to your vagina. As estrogen levels drop, you might experience discomfort during intercourse due to reduced lubrication and irritation. Fortunately, using a synthetic lubricant or libido supplement can help make sex more enjoyable!
Many women believe menopause makes you gain weight, but this isn’t entirely true. Instead, perimenopause and menopause might affect how fat is distributed throughout your body. During perimenopause, you might find that more fat has accumulated around your middle, rather than in the thighs or buttocks, and stays that way through menopause.
Hormone fluctuations can also affect your skin—and not just on your face. Many perimenopausal women will experience changes to their skin, including adult acne and dark spots. After menopause, other changes might be apparent, including excessive dryness and wrinkled or sagging skin.
Depression and anxiety
Aside from mood swings, some women experience more severe changes to their mental health—namely feelings of depression and anxiety. These challenges might become apparent during perimenopause and subside after your transition. The reason these feelings occur has to do with the roles estrogen and progesterone play in stabilizing chemicals in your brain. Additionally, the onset of disruptive symptoms and major life changes can put women under additional distress.
Fortunately, menopause symptoms don’t have to plague you for years. There are many treatment options available that can help reduce your symptoms and make your transition much smoother and more manageable.
Long-term risks of menopause
Unfortunately, the risks of menopause are not solely in its unpleasant symptoms. During and after menopause, women need to be cautious about major changes in their bodies—specifically osteoporosis and heart disease—and how these might affect them for the rest of their lives.
The reason these two ailments are more likely in menopausal women is related to changing levels of estrogen. Aside from aiding in reproductive functions, estrogen plays a number of important roles throughout the body. As estrogen levels fall closer to menopause, your risk of health problems might rise.
Osteoporosis is a condition that reduces bone density to dangerous levels. Women who have osteoporosis have brittle or fragile bones that are prone to fractures and breaks, making the risk of injury much greater.
Estrogen helps the body absorb calcium, which bones need to maintain their density. As estrogen levels decline, the body is unable to form bone as fast as it loses it, leading to an overall loss of bone density.
Women approaching menopause should have their bone density monitored by a doctor to create a proactive plan to avoid osteoporosis. The condition can be managed by a number of things including bone-supportive nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D, low-impact exercise and possibly hormone therapy.
Heart disease is also extremely common for women entering menopause. There is still much to learn about the link between menopause and heart disease, but experts currently believe that dropping estrogen levels affect numerous elements of heart health, including blood vessel flexibility, cholesterol management and blood pressure.
It’s crucial for women to form a proactive plan against heart disease with their doctors early—preferably during perimenopause. Monitoring heart health and using preventative measures against disease can help women reduce their risk for heart attacks and strokes after menopause.
Traditional and holistic menopause treatments
The symptoms associated with menopause—both temporary and lasting—can be quite challenging to contend with. Many women feel frustrated by these disruptions to their everyday lives. Fortunately, whether it’s brain fog hampering your productive work day or night sweats keeping you up all night, you don’t have to push through without help.
There are tons of menopause treatment options available, from both traditional medicine and holistic practices. A combination of these treatments may help you find relief as you navigate your transition.
Hormone therapy is a somewhat contested treatment option for menopausal women, but it may be a good option for some with more severe symptoms or health risks. In hormone therapy, women may use patches, pills or other forms of medication to artificially increase their estrogen and progesterone levels. Hormone therapy has demonstrated benefits for women with moderate to severe symptoms like hot flashes and vaginal dryness. It’s also a recommended option for women experiencing early menopause.
However, hormone therapy also comes with some risks, such as an increased risk for blood clots, strokes and forms of cancer. If you’re experiencing significant symptoms during menopause, it’s best to discuss hormone therapy with your doctor to see if it’s an appropriate choice for you.
Eating a healthy diet is just one of the many lifestyle changes women approaching menopause can make to manage their symptoms. Nutrition is closely related to symptom regulation and overall health and wellness. While your diet might not be able to completely stop uncomfortable symptoms, it can help you feel stronger and more balanced and set you up for great health post-menopause.
Foods and supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial for menopausal women. These fats help reduce inflammation, fight off depression and may even reduce the intensity of hot flashes! Eating the “rainbow” of fruits and vegetables will also help you get a range of vitamins and nutrients that help reduce menopause symptoms. And, eating foods rich in calcium and protein will help prevent the loss of muscle mass and bone density over time.
Of course, you also want to avoid certain foods during your transition.
Processed food and food with excess sugar, as well as caffeine, are all known to worsen problems like brain fog, depression, anxiety, fat accumulation and hot flashes.
Throughout perimenopause, you might come to realize that certain things trigger symptoms more than others. For example, many women discover that spicy foods make their hot flashes and night sweats more intense. Alcohol and stress are common triggers, too.
Avoiding these triggers as much as possible once you’ve discovered them can help you manage menopause more easily and comfortably. It might help to keep a journal of your symptoms to track down what triggers, specifically, result in greater discomfort.
Exercise is a critical component of every woman’s menopause management plan for many reasons. Regular workouts help you stay in good shape and promote total-body health, no matter your age. However, they can also help fight off feelings of depression and anxiety that are common during menopause, in addition to combating insomnia.
Exercise is also extremely important for post-menopausal women to help prevent osteoporosis and heart disease. Weight-bearing exercise helps bones form faster and more easily, effectively reducing bone density loss. Additionally, workouts improve your cardiovascular fitness to help you avoid heart disease.
Insomnia plagues many women during menopause. Not only is this frustrating on its own, but sleep disruption can also worsen other symptoms—particularly mental health challenges, mood swings and brain fog. Therefore, catering to your sleep may help alleviate some of the other problems you’re experiencing.
Sleep-supporting supplements like melatonin may help you fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly each night. Good sleep hygiene is also important. Try to create a sleep schedule and stick to it to train your body to sleep better every day. If night sweats wake you up in the middle of the night, try to sleep in light clothing and use fans, air conditioners and light bedding to better control your body temperature.
A myriad of herbal supplements exist that are designed to support particular bodily functions through specially chosen herbs, roots and vitamins. These supplements are generally safe to take long-term, unlike some medications, and use natural ingredients to balance your hormones.
Women experiencing a range of menopause symptoms might benefit most from a supplement formulated for menopause, specifically. Using adaptogens and hormone-balancing herbs, these types of supplements can offer widespread relief from many typical menopause problems like hot flashes. More targeted supplements, such as those for libido enhancement or concentration, may help you with more specific symptoms that interrupt your day-to-day life.
Surprisingly, experts believe that women experiencing menopause symptoms might find relief by taking a daily probiotic supplement. Probiotics are beneficial bacteria that restore and maintain balance in your gut microbiome. They prevent harmful bacteria from overgrowing and aid in healthy digestion. But more than that, probiotics are necessary for total-body health.
Adding a probiotic supplement to your daily routine might help relieve a few particular symptoms, including anxiety or depression, mood swings, hair loss and even urinary tract and vaginal infections.
Live happily & healthily after menopause
Menopause is a time of immense change for women, but it doesn’t have to be debilitating or difficult. By monitoring your health, implementing healthy lifestyle changes and consulting your doctor about severe symptoms in your 40s and 50s, you can set yourself up for a more comfortable transition and a happy, healthy life after menopause.