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What is Menopause by Robin Cavanaugh

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Menopause is the time when menstruation and the ability to reproduce ends for a woman.  Menopause can last several months to several years and is cause for celebration to some, a curse to others.  There are 34 recognized symptoms of menopause and various treatment options available for those suffering from severe symptoms.

Menopause can occur as early as age 40 in some women, with the average onset age being 51.  Perimenopause marks the time when menstruation changes begin due to rapidly changing hormone levels, with decreased and infrequent periods.   Surgical menopause occurs when a woman has had her ovaries removed, at any age.  A woman is said to be in menopause when she has gone 12 months without a period.   While many women at this time feel relieved of a monthly nuisance, others may suffer symptoms so debilitating that it requires medical intervention.

Menopause symptoms are a result of hormone changes and can range from mildly annoying to downright frightening for some women, with 50% of women reporting little or no symptoms at all.   Hot flashes, night sweats, loss of libido, insomnia, weight gain,  (especially around the midsection),  mood swings, anxiety, and an inability to concentrate are just a few of the symptoms that can range from mild to severe, thanks to reduced estrogen.  Some women may experience dry skin, hair, and brittle nails during this time, as well as incontinence, heart palpitations, joint pain and headaches.  While many menopause symptoms seem to coincide with natural changes caused by aging, menstrual changes are the defining symptom.  A primary care physician or gynecologist may order blood tests to check hormone levels to determine if a woman is in menopause and rule out any possible thyroid conditions, which many menopause symptoms mimic.

For those suffering from severe menopause changes such as hot flashes and night sweats, there are a few treatment options.  Menopausal Hormone Therapy or MHT (formerly and more commonly recognized as Hormone Replacement Therapy-HRT), is a synthetic-based estrogen-progesterone combination that helps restore hormone levels, with an estrogen-only formula prescribed to women who have had their uterus removed.  MHT is a controversial option for women, as it has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, heart attack, stroke, and blood clots.  Women who choose this treatment option should be given the lowest dose possible for the shortest amount of time to reduce these risks.

Another treatment option is Bioidentical Hormone Therapy (BHT) which uses man-made hormones identical to the hormones the body makes.  Some of these are available that do have FDA approval, while others, custom-created by a pharmacist by a doctor’s prescribed order do not.  These custom-made products are generally not covered by insurance.

Natural supplements containing phytoestrogens are another treatment option.  Phytoestrogens are plant-based, and found in many foods, especially soy.  It is thought that phytoestrogens encourage the body to copy or create estrogens naturally, thereby decreasing some of the menopause symptoms.  These supplements are not FDA-approved, and the jury is still out on whether phytoestrogens serve any benefit in the management of menopause symptoms.

Many women have found lifestyle changes to be beneficial to managing their menopause symptoms.  Regular exercise, a healthy diet, stress management, mediation, all things conducive to a healthy lifestyle in general can help with menopause symptoms.  Studies have shown women who smoke or were overweight had a significant reduction in symptoms by stopping smoking and losing weight.

For women approaching or experiencing menopause, it is imperative to keep an open mind to the natural changes occurring in their bodies.  Maintaining an active, healthy lifestyle, along with continued professional health care can help ease the transition into, and manage the symptoms and effects of menopause.


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U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health


The American College of Obstetrics and Gynelcologists


Office of Women’s Health, U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services



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