It is easy to say that the symptoms of menopause are merely a state of mind until it actually happens and you feel there is absolutely nothing you can do to help yourself.
It is also easy to say to yourself that all of this is part of the natural process of your life, that you are not alone and that every single woman on earth goes through this at some stage in their life. Yet when these symptoms continue year after year it really is not that easy!
What is menopause?
Menopause is the permanent end of your menstrual periods and it generally occurs in women aged 45-55 years.
It occurs when your ovaries stop functioning cyclically and so stop producing the hormones oestrogen and progesterone. Ovarian function slows and changes over a number of years before menopause and this stage is called peri-menopause. One year after your last period you will be ‘post-menopausal’.
“So many women I’ve talked to see menopause as an ending. But I’ve discovered this is your moment to reinvent yourself after years of focusing on the needs of everyone else. It’s your opportunity to get clear about what matters to you and then to pursue that with all of your energy, time and talent”.Oprah Winfrey
What are the symptoms of menopause?
Common symptoms of menopause include:
- hot flushes
- mood swings
- weight gain
- vaginal dryness
- dryness of skin and hair.
What is happening to your hormones during menopause?
From puberty to menopause, your ovaries produce the majority of oestrogen in your body. This oestrogen is called estradiol. Your ovaries also produce the corpus luteum which secretes the hormone progesterone.
The ovaries are, therefore, vital to the production of your two most important sex hormones – oestrogen and progesterone. As you age your ovaries shrink and there is a rapid decrease in these hormones, especially oestrogen.
Although we curse oestrogen during our menstrual years, it has many protective functions in our bodies and, unfortunately, it is only once we lose it that we appreciate its importance. Once oestrogen levels decline we are more at risk for specific disorders such as cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, urinary tract infections, thrush and even depression.
What does oestrogen do?
Oestrogen plays many roles in your body. It:
- Is responsible for your female sexual characteristics such as your breasts, widened hips and bodily-hair distribution.
- Helps regulate your reproductive cycle, as well as your fluid and electrolyte balance.
- Helps lower your blood cholesterol.
- Helps build strong bones and muscles through a process known as protein anabolism
- Together with progesterone, it prepares your body for pregnancy and breast-feeding.
So when this incredibly valuable hormone decreases significantly it is not surprising that you feel as if your body is going a bit mad:
- your bone density declines and your risk of osteoporosis or bone fractures increases
- your firm breast tissue is replaced by adipose tissue (fat)
- the pH of your urine changes so you become prone to urinary tract infections and symptoms such as frequency, urgency or incontinence even when there is no actual infection
- the tissue lining your vagina thins and smooths resulting in vaginal itching, dryness and pain during sex
- your pelvic floor muscles weaken resulting in prolapses of pelvic organs or uncomfortable sensations of “heaviness” in your vagina and lower back
- and most commonly, you become prone to depression and vasomotor symptoms such as flushing or hot flashes.
Gosh it is quite depressing just writing all that !!!
Menopause & depression
A symptom of menopause that is often overlooked, yet very common, is depression.
Oestrogen affects serotonin receptors and transporters in the brain and it is also thought to be neuroprotective, having positive effects on memory and cognition. When oestrogen levels decline you become more prone to low moods or depression.
Add to these physiological changes the emotional and mental changes that accompany menopause as well as a lack of sleep often brought on by hot flushes at night, and it is not surprising that menopause really is a difficult time.
However, despite the unpleasant physiological changes you experience during menopause, it does help to remember that it is also a liberating time in which you are finally free of your monthly periods and the responsibilities they bring…we need to look on the bright side!
This blog is adapted from one of my published articles in: The South African Journal of Natural Medicine, May 2017
[i] Natural Menopause Journey, June 2010 (online). http://www.natural-menopause-journey.com/perimenopause-symptoms-and-culture.html. Accessed: 21 March 2017
[ii] Jane Feinmann, What Makes British Women Have the Worst Menopause, Daily Mail, June 2010 (online). http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1286569/British-women-worst-menopause.html. Accessed: 21 March 2017
[iii] Natural Menopause Journey, June 2010 (online). http://www.natural-menopause-journey.com/perimenopause-symptoms-and-culture.html. Accessed: 21 March 2017
[iv] MediHerb Seminar Notes: Menopause, Endometriosis and Uterine Fibroids, Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome, Premenstrual Syndrome. 2005: 1-29
Oprah Winfrey (online). http://www.msn.com/en-gb/lifestyle/relationships/7-quotes-from-awesome-women-thatll-make-you-think-differently-about-menopause. Accessed: 22 March 2017