Menopause is a normal condition that all women experience as they age. The term “menopause” can describe any of the changes a woman goes through, either just before or after she stops menstruating, marking the end of her reproductive period.
Typically, a woman’s ovaries stop releasing eggs in her early 50s and the menstrual cycle stops. Some women breeze through menopause with only the odd hot flush, but others can struggle with a variety of symptoms.
The physiological reason for the body changing is the drop in oestrogen and progesterone production and the effect this has on other hormones. This affects women in completely different ways, but the most common symptoms include: hot flushes, sweating, insomnia, weight gain, anxiety, impairment of memory and fatigue. Long-term consequences can include a decline in libido, osteoporosis, heart disease and dementia.
Menopause is gradual and has three stages:
- Perimenopause: Menstrual cycles are irregular but have not stopped. On average women are about 47 years of age when they reach this stage. The ovaries are gradually producing less oestrogen so menopausal symptoms may start to develop.
- Menopause: This starts about a year after the last menstrual period. Hot flashes, vaginal dryness, sleep problems and other symptoms are common.
- Postmenopause: The time of a woman’s life following menopause. During this time, many of the symptoms gradually decrease. Postmenopausal women have an increased risk of developing a number of health conditions, such as osteoporosis and heart disease.
Symptoms of menopause
Irregular periods: A change in menstrual pattern is usually the first symptom. Some women experience a significant increase or decrease in both frequency and intensity of their periods.
Hot flushes: One of the most common and troublesome problems, hot flushes can range from occasional to severely disabling. Physiologically hot flushes are a heat loss mechanism allowing heat to escape and lowering core temperature. Hot flushes generally occur during the first year after a woman’s final period.
Vaginal dryness: Decreased oestrogen levels result in the thinning and shrinking of the tissues in the vagina (known as vaginal atrophy), as well as decreased lubrication. Itching and/or discomfort causing pain, particularly during intercourse.
Disturbed sleep: Many women struggle with poor sleep during menopause due to a drop in oestrogen. Oestrogen is required to make serotonin, which produces melatonin needed for sleeping.
Urinary problems: Menopause can increase urinary tract infections in some women.
Moodiness: A common symptom of menopause, moodiness is often triggered by poor sleep and changes in hormone levels.
Lower fertility: As oestrogen levels drop significantly, chances of falling pregnant are low.
Problems focusing and learning: Short-term memory can be affected and some women experience lowered concentration levels.
Other symptoms of menopause can include:
- Increased fat building up in the abdomen.
- Decreased breast size.
- Thinning of hair and hair loss.