What Does the Menopause Journey Look Like?
Just in case you're like me and want to know the root of words, the word "menopause" comes from the Greek words "menos" or month and "pause" which means to cease or stop. So, menopause is quite literally your "monthly stop." Or, when your period stops because you no longer have a supply of eggs in your ovaries.
As we get older, the ovaries slow their release of functioning eggs until we have no functioning eggs remaining. Plus, the ovaries produce less and less reproductive hormones, progesterone and estrogen.
As they approach menopause, some women get lighter and fewer periods and other women get heavier and closer periods. When you don't have a period for twelve consecutive months, you're in the menopause journey.
Unlike when you start puberty and your period, as in when you start your period you now get them seemingly forever (eek) from that point forward, menopause is more of a journey to its final destination, post-menopause.
Let's explore what that journey looks like.
Menopause is caused by hormone level changes as women age.
Symptoms include hot flushes, mood changes, memory problems, and sex-drive changes.
Symptoms may last, on average, up to four years but it varies from woman to woman.
Symptoms can be alleviated for those who want it via hormonal therapy or a healthy diet, exercise, and behavioural changes.
Talking to people – friends, family, and professionals – can help you not to feel so alone (over 50% of women are in menopause or post-menopause).
What is perimenopause?
So, the root "peri" means around (as in the word perimeter) so perimenopause means "around menopause." Perimenopause can happen as early as your mid-30s to late 40s, with the typical length being around four years but lasting as long as ten years – or as short as a few months.
Perimenopause is not the beginning of menopause. It is simply the time before menopause happens.
During perimenopause, your periods may be further apart/closer together, longer/shorter, heavier/lighter and these period changes generally indicate you're perimenopausal.
You may have trouble sleeping, mood swings, weight gain, hot flushes, night sweats, anxiety, memory problems, vaginal dryness, and lower sex drive. If you're perimenopausal in your 30s, you may feel these are just life stressors and not a result of hormonal shifts.
Early menopause occurs before age 45 and premature menopause occurs before age 40. It's uncommon (fewer than 5% of women) without contributing factors such as other health conditions, but talk to your doctor if you're under 45 and experiencing perimenopausal symptoms.
Your perimenopausal phase may start years before your last menstrual cycle. Symptoms (like in periods) vary with women and some women have mild symptoms and others have more severe symptoms, which impact on their everyday life, unfortunately.
Can I get pregnant when I'm perimenopausal?
The short answer is yes, you can! If you'd rather not have a baby at this stage, some form of birth control is recommended until a year after your last period.
We aren't medical professionals, so discuss with your doctor the best option for you but for many women that can include birth control pills, patches, or rings, non-hormone IUDs, hormone IUDs, progestin-only pills, implants, and injections, sterilisation, barrier methods, and other forms.
What is natural menopause?
Natural menopause is when your body naturally and permanently ends menstruation. It's when you have your final menstrual period after not having one for twelve consecutive months.
Again, natural menopause can happen as early as 40 and as late as age 60 but typically occurs around age 51. You'll typically experience menopause around the same age as your mother and sisters (if you have them).
Note: Smokers may experience menopause up to two years earlier than non-smokers but age, age of your first period, the use of birth control pills, or fertility medications do not seem to be determining factors.
How long does menopause last?
As we have noted, symptoms may last for months or even up to ten years, but they usually last around four years after your last period.
When menopause will happen and how long it'll last for you is difficult to predict.
What are the "treatments" for menopause?
First, menopause is natural and "treatments" are just ways of alleviating symptoms. We used this term because the word "treatment" is often bandied about when it comes to menopause, but really it's natural and we'd never talk about how to "treat" periods so we maybe should avoid using the word "treat" as if it's something that needs to be "fixed" or "remedied."
Second, there are ways to alleviate severe symptoms which could help including if your symptoms are severe you may opt to talk to your doctor about hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which replaces estrogen or you may try cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help with mood changes or you may figure out what makes you feel better – from cleaning up your diet to exercise and more.
What are natural ways to alleviate symptoms?
We have written about ways to alleviate symptoms on the blog but to manage hot flushes you can make behavioural changes such as wearing lighter clothes, using a fan to keep your bedroom cool, or trying to avoid foods that trigger symptoms.
For mood improvements, try self-care measures like relaxation, staying active, getting enough sleep, and eating a healthy diet (you know, all the usual advice).
What is post-menopause?
The final stage in the journey of menopause is being postmenopausal ("post" is the English prefix meaning "after"). Sometimes symptoms like hot flashes and vaginal dryness may linger due to a continued decrease in estrogen. Lower hormone levels may also increase your risk for related diseases such as osteoporosis, so have your doctor monitor your health pre-, during, and post-menopause.
Menopause is a natural journey and symptoms may stop and start at random. It may be an uncertain time for many women which is why self-care is important (rejuvenating facial anyone?) as well as talking to loved ones and friends (or even the NU-U staff) about your symptoms. We are here to be a safe space for all our clients, especially our perimenopausal, menopausal, and post-menopausal women. It may be a difficult and uncertain time for many women and it's important to talk about it.
More in the series
Want to see what else we've written on the subject of menopause? Here're more posts in our menopause series – because we don't talk about this issue that affects all women enough!