Many women go into their 40s with a negative perception of menopause. Indeed, menopause often comes at a stressful time of life, as women deal with teen and young adult children and aging parents on top of work, family, and other pressures. And while menopause is a normal and natural process, it often has uncomfortable and unpleasant symptoms. But menopause doesn’t have to be a nightmare: help is available. Many women benefit tremendously from lifestyle changes and medical treatment as they navigate the transition. Your primary care provider is an excellent place to start.
What exactly happens during menopause?
Menopause is the life change that marks the end of our menstrual period as we age. The medical community defines menopause as 12 uninterrupted months without a period. However, many women experience symptoms for years leading up to that milestone. This time in our lives is called the menopausal transition or perimenopause. Perimenopause usually lasts around seven years but can last a dozen years or more in some cases. Menopause usually happens between 45 and 55, with 51 as the average age. As we move through perimenopause into menopause, our body’s estrogen levels drop, and progesterone levels fluctuate. As the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging puts it, menopause is not a disease or a disorder. Instead, it’s a natural process that all women experience. We’re not looking to “cure” menopause but rather relieve disruptive symptoms.
What Are The Symptoms of Menopause?
The first sign of the menopause transition is usually a change in menstrual periods. Your periods may become more or less frequent and longer or shorter in length as your body adjusts to changing hormone levels. Some of the most common symptoms and effects of menopause and the transition include:
- Hot flashes cause your body and face to heat up (usually in an uncomfortable way). Hot flashes often happen as night sweats.
- Trouble sleeping.
- Mood changes, including depression and anxiety.
- Trouble focusing and forgetfulness.
- Vaginal dryness and pain during sex because of reduced estrogen levels.
- Metabolism changes and weight gain.
- Loss of bladder control.
- Hair loss.
How Can I Ease Menopause Symptoms Through Nutrition and Lifestyle
Taking care of yourself in meaningful ways can help you move through the menopause transition with greater ease and comfort. Lifestyle changes can help you navigate the process. Some of the most helpful include:
- Follow a regular sleep schedule and develop a bedtime routine.
- Exercise regularly, including weight-bearing exercise to help preserve bone density.
- Eat a healthy diet, including low-fat, high-fiber foods, fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Some studies have also indicated that adding extra soy into your diet can help with hot flashes and other symptoms.
- Limit alcohol and caffeine to promote hydration and help preserve a healthy sleep schedule.
- Quit tobacco products to help reduce hot flashes and other symptoms.
- Use an over-the-counter water-based lubricant to ease pain during sex.
How Can My Primary Care Provider Help Me Navigate Menopause?
Lifestyle changes can play a significant role in helping us move through the menopause transition. However, for some, symptoms can become extremely disruptive. In this case, patients can benefit from medical treatment. Medical options include:
- Hormone therapy pharmaceuticals replace estrogen and progestin in your body. Hormone therapy can help prevent bone loss and relieve symptoms, including hot flashes. It’s available in patches, creams, gels, and injections. Long-term hormone therapy has been linked to breast cancer and cardiovascular issues in some patients, so talk with your provider about whether the benefits of low-dose, short-term treatment outweigh the risks.
- Vaginal estrogen applied directly to the vagina as a ring, cream or tablet can help relieve dryness.
- Low-dose antidepressants in the SSRI family can help with hot flashes and mood changes associated with menopause.
- Studies show that some anti-seizure drugs like Gabapentin reduce hot flashes and sleep disruption associated with menopause.
- If you show signs of low bone density as you age, your provider may recommend a medication to prevent or treat osteoporosis.
- Women can still become pregnant during the perimenopause phase. Continue using birth control until you’ve gone at least 12 full months without a menstrual period.
Menopause is not the end of the world, but it is a significant change that can come with unpleasant effects. However, we can alleviate symptoms and make the experience smoother with support. Your primary care provider is an essential support system for women navigating the aging process. At Comprehensive Primary Care, women’s health is a crucial area of focus. Our team of doctors, nurse practitioners, and PAs support women through all phases of life, including the challenges of the menopause transition. If menopause symptoms interfere with your quality of life, start a conversation with your provider. It’s the first step in getting relief and finding the positive side of this new phase of life.