Menopause can be both a physical and emotional journey for a woman. The good news is it can also be a time for new beginnings—a sort of passageway to a new part of life. Freedom from worries about pregnancy and birth control. Possibly a new starting point to refocus on your overall health and well-being. An important step in your journey is understanding what menopause is and what you can expect from the transition.
Menopause is a normal, natural part of life. Like puberty, all women go through it. The average age of a woman entering menopause is 51. Menopause is a stage of a woman’s reproductive cycle that occurs when the ovaries stop producing estrogen. Menopause is typically confirmed when a woman has missed her periods for 12 consecutive months.
Menopause can occur at any age when both ovaries are surgically removed. This is called surgical menopause. Since the ovaries are removed, which are the body’s main source of estrogen, surgical menopause often results in a sudden onset of symptoms associated with menopause.
Today, menopause is better understood and more openly discussed than it was years ago. The average age of a woman entering natural menopause is 51 years. Before menopause, estrogen, made by a woman’s ovaries, is used by many parts of the body including the reproductive tract, the urinary tract, the heart and blood vessels, bones, breasts, skin, hair and the brain. Estrogen also regulates the menstrual cycle. During perimenopause, the transition period before a woman reaches menopause, estrogen levels gradually decline and periods may become irregular. Menopause is typically confirmed when a woman has missed her periods for 12 consecutive months.
What Is Surgical Menopause?
Some women enter menopause as a result of surgery. Removal of your uterus (hysterectomy) and ovaries (oophorectomy) will initiate menopause at any age. Premenopausal women who have their uterus, cervix and ovaries removed (called a total, or complete, hysterectomy) will go into menopause right away. Because the decrease in estrogen levels is abrupt, the symptoms associated with menopause following surgery are often more intense.
Depending on your age, removal of the uterus alone, although stopping menstruation, does not cause menopause because the ovaries produce hormones, not the uterus. However, women who have only the uterus removed may experience menopause sooner, depending on ovarian function before the hysterectomy.
The severity of symptoms associated with menopause varies from woman to woman. Some women experience troublesome symptoms, while others make the transition with few symptoms at all. Symptoms associated with menopause include hot flashes, night sweats and vaginal dryness and atrophy. If your hot flashes, night sweats or vaginal dryness and atrophy are moderate to severe, you may want to consider estrogen therapy (ET).
Osteoporosis, or thin weak bones, is a major health concern after menopause. Bone density reaches its peak by the age of 30. After that, bone loss occurs gradually, and at 2 to 3 years before menopause the loss accelerates to 2% per year. While not all osteoporosis is due to menopause, menopause is a common cause for thinning bones. In fact, most women who have gone through menopause have low bone mass.
Both natural and surgically induced menopause raise the risk of osteoporosis. Women receiving no ET can lose about 20% of their bone mineral density (BMD) during the first 10 years after menopause.
Hot Flashes & Night Sweats
Hot flashes are the most common symptoms associated with menopause. And if you’ve had one, the sudden wave of heat is unmistakable. Your face and neck can become red and flushed. You may experience an increased pulse rate and a sensation of rapid heart beating. This is often followed by heavy sweating and then the chills. Typically hot flashes last between 30 seconds and 10 minutes and can be very mild or strong enough to disrupt your busy day.
The exact cause of hot flashes is unknown, but they are thought to be a result of changes in the hypothalamus, the body’s thermostat. If the hypothalamus incorrectly senses that the body is too hot, it sets off a chain of events that lead to a hot flash. Some women never experience hot flashes while others have them for many years.
Hot flashes that occur at night accompanied by heavy perspiration are called night sweats. They may be very mild or strong enough to wake you up. Night sweats can leave you feeling cold and clammy, with your bedclothes and sheets soaked in sweat.
Estrogen therapy (ET) is the most effective treatment for helping to control moderate to severe hot flashes and night sweats.