In popular culture, menopause is often reduced to a simplistic set of symptoms, such as ill-timed hot flashes or wild changes in mood. In reality, however, menopause–and the perimenopause that comes before–is a time of transitions. Some of these transitions are significant, some minor. Knowing how menopause changes your body can help prepare you for this entirely natural part of your life.
Many people may look forward to menopause, as it signals the end of menstruation. Menopause won’t change who you are, what you love, or your fundamental personality–but it can change the way your body looks and behaves.
The Stages of Menopause
Menopause does not occur at the flip of a switch. It’s a long process as your body prepares for its post-reproductive years. In general, physicians break down the menopause experience into three distinct categories:
- Perimenopause: This is when your body starts transitioning into menopause. For many individuals, perimenopause will begin in their 40s, when estrogen production starts to wane. Symptoms of perimenopause could include headaches, mood changes, hot flashes, night sweats, sleep disturbances, menstrual irregularities and more.
- Menopause: You officially enter menopause when you’ve experienced at least 12 months without having your menstrual cycle without the aid of birth control or other medications. Once you experience menopause, you can no longer become pregnant.
- Postmenopause: Your postmenopausal period is everything that occurs after menopause. After you experience menopause, then, you will be considered “postmenopausal.”
These boundaries between these stages are somewhat artificial, but they help your OBGYN or Midwife ascertain how menopause affects your body, where you are on your menopause journey, and the best treatments to relieve discomfort.
How Menopause Changes Your Body
The primary–but not the only–means by which menopause will impact your body is by lowering the total amount of reproductive hormones (estrogen and progesterone, for example) you produce. This can have large impacts on how your body functions and how you generally feel.
For most, menopause can change your body in some of the following ways.
As your metabolism slows down, the ways in which your body stores excess fat can change significantly. For most pre-menopausal individuals, fat is distributed mostly to the hips and thighs–below the waist. This changes with perimenopause as your hormones change. Fat will tend to stick to your abdominal areas above the waist.
In more common terms, menopause will often cause some people to go from pear-shaped to apple-shaped.
Changes In Your Hair
As the hormones change within your body, you may notice some transformations when it comes to hair:
- You may grow more facial hair. This is caused because your estrogen production is lower–so the ratio of estrogen to testosterone changes. With relatively more testosterone in your body (even though you aren’t producing more), you may experience hair growth in areas where you haven’t before.
- The hair on your head may begin to thin. Again, this is caused by changes in your hormone levels and doesn’t impact every individual who becomes menopausal.
Changes in Your Mood
The stereotype in popular culture is that menopause makes you cranky. And that’s sort of true. It’s more accurate to say that menopause may cause general moodiness of a wide variety of types. Those who are experiencing perimenopause, especially, may notice moods as varied as depression, irritability, and happiness. When these moods shift rapidly or for no rational or observable reason, this may be due to hormonal changes.
Insomnia is one of the most common–and often troubling–symptoms of perimenopause and menopause. There are a few primary reasons why you might have trouble sleeping:
- Changes in your hormone levels: Drops in estrogen and progesterone hormones can impact how you’re able to sleep. Usually, hormonal changes can interrupt your sleep cycle, making it more challenging for you to fall asleep–or stay asleep.
- Hot flashes and night sweats: Both of these symptoms can be quite uncomfortable on their own. Together, they often form a one-two punch that wakes you up throughout the night (and keeps you awake no matter how tired you are).
When you don’t get enough sleep, your overall mood and functionality may be negatively impacted for the rest of the day.
It’s somewhat well known that menopause can cause vaginal dryness. The hormones that help keep your vagina lubricated are less present. This can make sex painful and other impacts on your daily life.
But menopause can also cause dry and itchy skin all over! That’s because there’s less estrogen stimulating the production of collagen, and without collagen your skin tends to lose more moisture over time. While this dry skin may be most noticeable in some common areas (such as your elbows), it may quickly become something that happens over your entire body.
This can cause widespread (and uncomfortable) itchiness. But there are treatments which can help mitigate these symptoms.
Can You Find Relief from the Changes of Menopause?
You can never go back to being pre-menopausal. As your body produces less estrogen, you’ll eventually find yourself at a postmenopausal new-normal. However, there are some ways that your OBGYN or Midwife will be able to make the process less unpleasant and the transition easier.
The first step may be treating some of your symptoms. For example, if your skin is dry, your OBGYN or Midwife may recommend specific moisturizers that can help prevent dry and itchy skin. Trouble sleeping can sometimes be mitigated with specific sleep aid therapies (i.e. mindfulness, meditation, cognitive behavior therapy for insomnia) or by adopting new behaviors. (aka sleep hygiene) Hot flashes may be treated with specific medications designed to diminish the impact that they have and use of a fan at night and wearing light layers of clothes can also provide relief.
Should You Get Hormone Therapy for Menopause?
Some women will be good candidates for hormone therapies. These hormones will attempt to supply your body with estrogen. That way, you and your OBGYN or Midwife can work to wean your body through your perimenopausal transition. This approach may help relieveyour symptoms.
Not everyone is a good candidate for hormone replacement therapies. Your OBGYN or Midwife will review your medical history to determine if starting hormones is appropriate or not.That’s because, in some cases, use of hormone therapy over long periods of time has been linked to the possible development of certain types of cancers, although this risk is lower if you no longer have a uterus.
Talk to your OBGYN or Midwife to find the most effective–and safest–solutions for your menopause.
You Don’t Have to Suffer Through Menopause Symptoms
While some symptoms will certainly be less comfortable than others, menopause can still be a joyful and happy time in your life. Your body will change, but many individuals find positives within that transition. Those less comfortable symptoms can be successfully managed, making your journey through perimenopause into menopause less uncomfortable.
If you have concerns or questions about how menopause changes your body–and what you can do to manage any bothersome symptoms–contact your Wilmette or Glenview OBGYN or Midwife to schedule a consultation.