It’s known as “the change of life” for good reason. Menopause brings many changes to a woman’s body – and not all are welcome. But there are ways you can make your change for the better.
At first, Carol Dixon thought the air conditioning system in her office was on the fritz. One moment she was wrapped in a sweater – worn to ward off the chill from the air conditioning vent above her desk – and the next she’d feel a flush crawl across her skin as her body began to overheat. The warmth felt unbearable and the sweat that poured from her skin was embarrassing.
Then there were the surges of irritability that over-took her. “I was happy one minute and ready to scream in frustration the next,” she says. She blamed it on the stress of balancing a demanding job with raising a child and maintaining a marriage.
Next her menstrual cycle went wacky. “My periods weren’t just irregular, and they were meaner when they finally came,” she remembers. “They were heavier and lasted longer, and the cramps were very painful.”
Enough was enough: She visited her doctor to learn why her periods had become so problematic. Not thinking to mention the hot flashes and irritability, Dixon told him she had recently stopped taking birth control pills. His diagnosis: her body was adjusting to hormonal changes caused by stopping the pill. “Give it a few months to get back to normal,” he told her.
She gave it six months. “The hot flashes and irritability were getting worse, and my cycle hadn’t gotten any better,” she says. This time she described all of her symptoms, and her doctor ran some tests. But when his office called to tell her she had entered perimenopause, the 42-year-old was stunned. “I flipped out,” Dixon recalls.
Perimenopause is a term doctors use to describe the transitional time before menstruation stops completely – the time commonly known as “going through menopause.” During perimenopause, the ovaries stop releasing eggs and cease secreting estrogen and progesterone. Rather than shut down overnight, however, the ovaries slow down these functions and even stop temporarily, only to start again. Menstruation becomes erratic and hormone levels surge and plummet. The fluctuating hormones can cause a wide range of distressing symptoms: hot flashes, irregular periods, memory loss, incontinence, mood swings, and a decreased sex drive.
Equally troubling to some women are the emotional issues they face. While many welcome their freedom from the menstrual cycle, some still want children – or at least that choice. Yet others view menopause as an unwelcome reminder of advancing age.
A New Stage of Life
“Menopause is a life passage whose approach often stirs apprehension,” says
Dr. Geoffrey Redmond, M.D., an internationally recognized specialist in female hormones and author of The Good News About Women’s Hormones. Yes the meaning of menopause has changed.
“The first thing to realize is that menopause is simply a decrease in estrogen – the idea that it is the equivalent of getting old is obsolete,” says Dr. Redmond, who is also the director of The Hormone Center of New York in New York City. His website – www.hormonehelpNY.com – provides a detailed discussion of menopause.
Post-menopausal women do face a higher risk for developing heart disease and osteoporosis, but most women today will also live 30 or more years beyond menopause.
Each woman’s perimenopause experience is unique. Some women start perimenopause as early as 40, others as late as 55. In addition to the symptoms already mentioned, falling estrogen levels can cause insomnia, vaginal dryness, skin sensitivity, and weight again. Depression and slow or “clouded” thinking also are common. You could experience one or all, in their mild or most severe form – but think positive.
“Often these changes are mild,” assures Dr. Redmond, “and few women are so unlucky as to get all of them.” If you start experiencing symptoms of menopause, see your doctor for an exam to rule out other causes. “The symptoms of menopause can start before or after menstruation stops.”