Menopause is a natural part of growing older. You don't need treatment for it unless your symptoms bother you. But it’s
a good idea to learn all you can about menopause. Knowing what to expect can help you stay as healthy as possible during this
new phase of your life.
What causes menopause?
Normal changes in your reproductive and hormone systems cause menopause. As your egg supply ages, your body begins to ovulate less often. This causes your hormone levels to go up and down unevenly (fluctuate), causing changes in your periods and other symptoms. In time, estrogen and progesterone levels drop enough that the menstrual cycle stops.
Some medical treatments can cause your periods to stop before age 40. Having your ovaries removed, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy can trigger early menopause.
What are the symptoms?
Common symptoms include:
- Irregular periods. Some women have light periods. Others have heavy bleeding. Your menstrual cycle may
be longer or shorter, or you may skip periods.
- Hot flashes.
- Trouble sleeping (insomnia).
- Emotional changes. Some women have mood swings or feel grouchy, depressed, or worried.
- Feeling that your heart is beating too fast or unevenly (palpitations).
- Problems with remembering or thinking clearly.
- Vaginal dryness.
Some women have only a few mild symptoms. Others have severe symptoms that disrupt their sleep and daily lives.
Symptoms tend to last or get worse the first year or more after menopause. Over time, hormones even out at low levels,
and many symptoms improve or go away. Then you can enjoy being free from periods and birth control concerns.
Do you need tests to diagnose menopause?
You don't need to be tested to see if you have started perimenopause or reached menopause. You and your doctor will most
likely be able to tell based on irregular periods and other symptoms.
If you have heavy, irregular periods, your doctor may want to do tests to rule out a serious cause of the bleeding. Heavy
bleeding may be a normal sign of perimenopause. But it can also be caused by infection, disease, or a pregnancy problem.
You may not need to see your doctor about menopause symptoms. But it is important to keep up your annual physical exams.
Your risks for heart disease, cancer, and osteoporosis increase after menopause. At your yearly visits, your doctor can check
your overall health and recommend testing as needed.
Do you need treatment?
Menopause is a natural part of growing older. You don't need treatment for it unless your symptoms bother you. But if your
symptoms are upsetting or uncomfortable, you don't have to suffer through them. There are treatments that can help.
The first step is to have a healthy lifestyle. This can help reduce symptoms and also lower your risk of heart disease
and other long-term problems related to aging.
- Make a special effort to eat well. Choose a heart-healthy diet that is low in saturated fat and includes
plenty of fish, fruits, vegetables, beans, and high-fiber grains and breads.
- Include plenty of calcium in your diet—1,200 mg a day after age 50 (plus at least 400 IU of vitamin
D to help your body use the calcium). Low- or nonfat dairy products are a great source of calcium.
- Get regular exercise. Exercise can help you manage your weight, keep your heart and bones strong, and lift
- Limit caffeine, alcohol, and stress. These things can make symptoms worse. Avoiding them may help you sleep
- If you smoke, stop. Quitting smoking can reduce hot flashes and long-term health risks.
If lifestyle changes are not enough to relieve your symptoms, you can try other measures, such as:
- Meditative breathing exercise (called paced respiration). Studies have shown that it can help reduce hot
flashes and emotional symptoms.1, 2
- Black cohosh. This herb may prevent or relieve symptoms. But experts don't know if it is safe to use for
longer than 6 months, and you should not take it if there is a chance you could be pregnant. If you plan to try black cohosh,
talk to your doctor about how to take it safely.
- Soy (isoflavones). Some women feel that eating lots of soy helps even out their menopause symptoms. It
may also help keep your bones strong after menopause.3
- Yoga or biofeedback to help reduce stress. High stress is likely to make your symptoms worse.
If you have severe symptoms, you may want to ask your doctor about prescription medicines. Choices include:
- Low-dose birth control pills before menopause.
- Low-dose hormone replacement therapy (HRT) after menopause.
- A medicine called clonidine (Catapres) that is usually used to treat high blood pressure.
All medicines for menopause symptoms have possible risks or side effects. A very small number of women develop serious
health problems when taking hormone therapy. Be sure to talk to your doctor about your possible health risks before you start
a treatment for menopause symptoms.
Remember, it is still possible to become pregnant until you reach menopause. To prevent an unwanted pregnancy, keep using
birth control until you have not had a period for 1 full year.