What Is Menopause?
Menopause is the end of a woman’s menstrual cycles. The term can describe any of the changes you go through just before or after you stop having your period, marking the end of your reproductive years.
A woman is born with all of her eggs, which are stored in her ovaries. The ovaries also make the hormones estrogen and progesterone, which control her period (menstruation) and the release of eggs (ovulation). Menopause happens when the ovaries no longer release an egg every month and menstruation stops.
Menopause is a regular part of aging when it happens after the age of 40. But some women can go through menopause early. It can be the result of surgery, like if their ovaries are removed in a hysterectomy, or damage to their ovaries, such as from chemotherapy. If it happens before age 40, for any reason, it’s called premature menopause.
What Conditions Cause Premature Menopause?
Your genes, some immune system disorders, or medical procedures can cause premature menopause. Other causes include:
- Premature ovarian failure. When your ovaries prematurely stop releasing eggs, for unknown reasons, your levels of estrogen and progesterone change. When this happens before you’re 40, it's called premature ovarian failure. Unlike premature menopause, premature ovarian failure isn’t always permanent.
Natural menopause isn’t caused by any type of medical or surgical treatment. It’s slow and has three stages:
- Perimenopause . This phase usually begins several years before menopause, when your ovaries slowly make less estrogen. Perimenopause lasts until menopause, the point at which your ovaries stop releasing eggs. In the last 1 to 2 years of this stage, estrogen levels fall faster. Many women have menopause symptoms.
- Menopause. This is when it's been a year since you had a period. Your ovaries have stopped releasing eggs and making most of their estrogen.
Most women nearing menopause will have hot flashes, sudden feelings of warmth that spread over the upper body, often with blushing and sweating. These flashes can range from mild in most women to severe in others.
Other symptoms include:
You might suspect that you’re going into menopause. Or your doctor will say something, based on symptoms you've told them about.
You can keep track of your periods and chart them as they become uneven. The pattern will be another clue to your doctor that you’re menopausal.
Your doctor might also test your blood for levels of:
- Follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). This usually goes up as you near menopause.
- Estradiol. This tells your doctor how much estrogen your ovaries are making.
- Thyroid hormones. This shows problems with your thyroid gland, which can affect your period and cause symptoms that look like menopause.
Menopause is a natural process. Many symptoms will go away over time. But if they’re causing problems, treatments can help you feel better. Common ones include:
- Hormone replacement therapy (HRT). This is also called menopausal hormone therapy. You take medications to replace the hormones that your body isn’t making anymore. Certain drugs or combinations can help with hot flashes and vaginal symptoms, as well as making your bones stronger. But they can also put you at higher risk of health problems like heart disease or breast cancer, so you should take the lowest dose that works for the shortest time possible.
- Topical hormone therapy. This is an estrogen cream, insert, or gel that you put in your vagina to help with dryness.
- Nonhormone medications. The depression drug paroxetine (Brisdelle, Paxil) is FDA-approved to treat hot flashes. The nerve drug gabapentin (Gralise, Neuraptine, Neurontin) and the blood pressure drug clonidine (Catapres, Kapvay) might also ease them. Medicines called selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs) help your body use its estrogen to treat hot flashes and vaginal dryness.
- Medications for osteoporosis. You might take medicines or vitamin D supplements to help keep your bones strong.
Lifestyle changes help many women deal with menopause symptoms. Try these steps:
- If you’re having hot flashes, drink cold water, sit or sleep near a fan, and dress in layers.
- Use an over-the-counter vaginal moisturizer or lubricant for dryness.
- Exercise regularly to sleep better and prevent conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis.
- Strengthen your pelvic floor muscles with Kegel exercises to prevent bladder leaks.
- Stay socially and mentally active to prevent memory problems.
- Don’t smoke. Tobacco might cause early menopause and increase hot flashes.
- Limit how much alcohol you drink, to lower your chance of getting breast cancer and help you sleep better.
- Eat a variety of foods and keep a healthy weight to help with hot flashes.
- Practice things like yoga, deep breathing, or massage to help you relax.
Some studies have found that soy products relieve hot flashes, but researchers are still looking into it. There’s little to no proof that other supplements work for menopause symptoms. Talk to your doctor before starting any herbal or dietary supplements.
The loss of estrogen linked with menopause is tied to a number of health problems that become more common as women age.
After menopause, women are more likely to have:
- Bone loss (osteoporosis)
- Heart disease
- Bladder and bowels that don’t work like they should
- Higher risk of Alzheimer's disease
- More wrinkles
- Poor muscle power and tone
- Weaker vision, such as from cataracts (clouding of the lens of the eye) and macular degeneration (breakdown of the tiny spot in the center of the retina that is the center of vision)