Menopause signs and symptoms are legendary. We know you've heard the horror stories: Hot flashes so severe, you feel like you're standing at the gates of hell. Night sweats so drenching, you look like you just ran a marathon. In Florida. In the summer.
Menopause is the time in a woman's life (usually occurring in her late 40s to mid-50s) when the ovaries dramatically cut back on their production of the female hormones estrogen and progesterone. It is a natural, normal part of the aging process. Without adequate amounts of estrogen and progesterone, periods become irregular. Later, as hormone levels seriously drop, periods stop altogether. Menopause, also known as "the change of life," is medically defined as not having a period for 12 consecutive months.
But being period-free is only one of the signs of menopause. There are others, and some of them can be pretty uncomfortable.
Turns out that estrogen and progesterone don't just control your periods, they also have an effect on other aspects of your body, like how it regulates your body temperature and sleep cycle. Lack of these hormones can also weaken your urethra, a tube that allows urine to pass from your body (at least there's a reason for those mad dashes to the bathroom).
Take heart: The hormonal hell that menopause inflicts is temporary. Although many menopause signs and symptoms are recurring, they don't all last forever. What's more, some women will have only mild menopause symptoms, and some women may never even experience certain symptoms. The fact of the matter is, every woman's menopause is different. To see you through to the other side, we round up some common menopause signs and symptoms and give you strategies on how to survive thrive.
Hot flashes — or brief but intense feelings of warmth in the chest, face, and head — affect about 75 percent of all women experiencing the change of life. In fact, it is one of the most common of all menopause symptoms. The feeling comes on suddenly and last anywhere from 30 seconds to 10 minutes. When these hot flashes occur during sleep, they are called night sweats. According to research, about half of women experience hot flashes for an average of (yikes!) seven years during the period leading up to and following menopause. To help cool the flames, experts advise the following:
1. Make lifestyle changes. Dress in layers, keep a portable fan handy, and lower the temperature in your home and office. Avoid caffeine and spicy foods, which can trigger hot flashes. If you're overweight, getting to a healthy number on the scale can help. Ditto quitting smoking if you're a smoker.
2. If hot flashes are troublesome, talk to your doctor. You may be a candidate for hormone replacement therapy (HRT). While HRT—progesterone, estrogen, or a combination of both, taken in the form of a pill, patch, cream, implant, or vaginal ring—has been linked to some dangerous health conditions like stroke and breast cancer, you may be able to lower your risk by using the lowest doses advisable for the shortest time possible. Other drugs that do not contain hormones, such as antidepressants, have also proven effective in lowering the incidence of this common menopause symptom.
3. Use herbal and dietary supplements, such as black cohosh and DHEA, with caution. They have not been proven to be effective, and can, in fact, be dangerous.
Declining levels of the sleep-promoting hormone progesterone, along with the aforementioned night sweats, account for a lot of poor sleep during menopause — something over 60 percent of menopausal women complain of, says the National Sleep Foundation. HRT may be something to discuss with your doctor. But in the meantime:
1. You can try keeping your bedroom cool. Use a fan, open a window, and/or lower the temperature in your home.
2. Dress lightly.
3. Avoid big meals and alcohol before bed—both can make it hard to fall and stay asleep.
4. Steer clear of hot flash triggers, such as spicy and acidic foods.
Another common sign of menopause is urinary incontinence. Without enough estrogen to shore it up, your urinary tract can weaken and its muscles can thin, leading to urinary leakage. To counteract the problem:
1. Avoid spicy foods, alcohol, and caffeinated drinks, which can irritate the bladder.
2. Try Kegel exercises to strengthen the pelvic floor. These exercises involve squeezing, holding, and then releasing the pelvic muscles.
3. Use the restroom regularly, even if your need to go is not great.
4. Talk to your doctor about medical treatment, which might include drugs or even electrical stimulation of the pelvic muscles.
Estrogen does a lot of things to your body, including keeping the vagina lubricated and healthy. In one study, over half of women reported experiencing the menopausal symptom of vaginal dryness. As estrogen levels drop, the vagina can become dry, thinned, and inflamed—not exactly the stuff a hot, steamy sex life is made of. You can minimize the discomfort with:
1. Over-the-counter personal lubricants.
2. Estrogen suppositories and creams (available by prescription) inserted directly into the vagina, limiting your body's overall exposure to the hormone.
3. Avoidance of anything that may irritate the vagina, like scented soaps or douches.
A lot of women report feeling irritable and moody during menopause. That's because a drop in estrogen can affect levels of the brain's "feel good" chemicals, namely serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. To combat irritability:
1. Eat a balanced diet. Make fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean meats the bulk of the foods you eat.
2. Exercise. In one study, menopausal women who got 50 minutes of aerobic exercise four times a week had lower levels of a variety of menopause signs and symptoms, including irritability.
3. Get enough sleep. Practice good sleep habits (see above) to reduce the incidence of night sweats.
4. Limit stress. Carving out even a few minutes a day to do something that relaxes you, be it yoga, reading, or walking, can help you decompress.
That middle-age spread—one of the most dreaded of all menopause signs and symptoms — is due to a lot of factors (we're looking at you genetics and aging), but menopause does play a role. The loss of estrogen makes it more likely that any weight gained will settle around your abdomen, resulting in the "menopause muffin top." To fight the bulge:
1. Eat less. According to the Mayo Clinic, you need to eat 200 fewer calories a day in your 50s versus when you were in your 30s and 40s. And that's just to maintain your weight.
2. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week (think brisk walking or swimming) and strength train two times a week.