Menopause might not be something every woman thinks about all the time, but every woman who is throwing off the covers from hot flashes is certainly thinking about it.
Doctors define menopause as the natural stopping of the menstrual cycle for one year, and it usually happens around age 50. The time after the menses have stopped for over a year is referred to as the postmenopause (after the menopause).
The ovaries are at the heart of the menopause. Healthy ovaries do two important things – they make eggs and they make hormones. When the ovaries have reached the menopause they no longer make eggs, so a woman who is postmenopausal can no longer have children. The second function of the ovaries is to make hormones. As a woman’s ovaries age her periods will start to become less cyclical. So as women reach their mid-40s it is not unusual for their menstrual periods to become closer together or further apart.
The primary hormones produced by the ovaries are estrogen and progesterone. As these levels decrease not only do women become unable to get pregnant and have changes in their menstrual cycle, but numerous other changes may happen to a woman.
While some women will have a big problem with these symptoms, many will have few problems or none at all. The length of time the symptoms affect women can vary from several months to several years.
The most common symptom of the menopause is a hot flash. Hot flashes are described as a sudden feeling of heat that rushes throughout the body, most commonly the upper body and face. Quite often the skin might blush, and sometimes there is some sweating. Individual hot flashes last from seconds to several minutes, but are not the same as being hot all of the time. Hot flashes can occur during the day or at night (sometimes referred to as night sweats).
Other changes that are common with the menopause are emotional changes, vaginal dryness, body shape changes, sleep disturbances, irregular menses and osteoporosis.
So what can be done to help women through this natural part of their lives? Sometimes nothing is needed. In other cases simply understanding that this is a normal sequence of events is enough to make the symptoms more tolerable. Sometimes vaginal lubricants are helpful with the painful sex that can come from menopause. The hot flashes seem to respond to dietary changes and lifestyle changes in some people. Numerous over-the-counter remedies are available at both health food stores and in local pharmacies. Extra calcium is a good idea to help prevent osteoporosis.
In some cases a physician might suggest hormone replacement therapy. Hormones have been shown to alleviate hot flashes and control irregular menses. Just as with any medication, there are risks and benefits with taking hormones. Your doctor should be able to help you decide if you should consider taking hormones.
Dr. Wayne Slocum is a board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist with Obstetrics-Gynecology Associates, P.A., and on the medical staff at North Mississippi Medical Center.