6 Surprising Things You Didn’t Know About Menopause
Menopause mostly deserves its bad rap, what with frustration-inducing symptoms like hot flashes, brain fog, weight gain, and mood swings. But take this to heart: The change doesn’t have to be this big, awful thing you fear or must suffer through.
Unfortunately, 65 percent of women say they feel unprepared for what menopause may bring, reports a study in the journal Maturitas. But unlike other hormonally tumultuous times like puberty and pregnancy, you’ve actually got a lot more control over how you weather this one, says Sarah De La Torre, M.D., an ob/gyn in Seattle.
The facts and the tips that follow will help you feel ready and empowered to deal with menopause — and make these years your best yet.
1. Symptoms could last for 7+ years.
You officially reach the big M after 12 months without a period, a milestone most women hit around age 51. “But it’s not a hard stop — it’s a gradual process,” explains Felice Gersh, M.D., an ob/gyn, director of the Integrative Medical Group of Irvine in Irvine, CA, and author of PCOS SOS: A Gynecologist’s Lifeline To Naturally Restore Your Rhythms, Hormones and Happiness.
According to a study in JAMA, the median length of the whole shebang, as marked by hot flash symptoms, is 7.4 years total (roughly 3 before your last period and 4.5 after). In those years before menopause, your cycle can get erratic, your periods may grow heavier or lighter, and you might experience classic symptoms like hot flashes, sleep problems, brain fog, and mood swings, Dr. Gersh says. After menopause, symptoms linger as your body adjusts.
2. No, hot flashes aren’t random.
Up to 80 percent of pre-menopausal women and 65 percent of post-menopausal women experience this trademark symptom. And while you may not be able to entirely avoid hot flashes, there are ways to minimize their impact.
“Triggers such as stress, hot drinks, caffeine, and sleep deprivation can definitely kick off hot flashes and make them worse and more frequent,” Dr. De La Torre says.
Spicy foods, hot rooms, and tight clothing also turn up the heat. So avoid those things, and swap them for more sleep, healthy foods, and plenty of exercise.
3. You can still have sex — and enjoy it.
“A lot of women feel like sex won’t be as good after menopause or that it will be painful,” Dr. De La Torre says. Sure, waning hormones can leave the vagina naturally drier and less elastic, but you don’t have to live with it or let it kill your sex life any more than you have to live with a headache in the age of ibuprofen.
“Vaginal estrogen inserts, lubricants, and red light therapy can all help improve the health of your vagina and maintain your sex life,” Dr. De La Torre says. Surprisingly, while 50 percent of women experience vaginal dryness and painful sex, as many as 90 percent don’t seek help, reports Harvard Women’s Health Watch. So be like the 10 percent, and talk to your doctor.
5. You can still get pregnant.
“I’ve had quite a few 44-year-olds with surprise pregnancies,” Dr. De La Torre says. “I think some women get more casual about birth control in their 40s, thinking there’s no way they could get pregnant — but you’re still fertile, just less so.”
There’s another reason to keep taking hormonal birth control: It could help smooth your path through menopause. The steady dose of hormones in pills and IUDs means your body may not fully register the decline of natural estrogen and progesterone. In other words, symptoms might not be as erratic. “A lot of women have ridiculously heavy or erratic periods in perimenopause, and progesterone-releasing IUDs, especially, help avoid that,” Dr. De La Torre says.
4. Menopause doesn’t just affect your reproductive system.
Estrogen is the “master of metabolic homeostasis [a.k.a balance] and function,” Gersh says. So when production ceases, it impacts everything from fat production and distribution, appetite hormones and thyroid function to energy levels, sleep, mood, inflammation, and so much more.
That’s partly why up to 90 percent of women gain weight after menopause and why you may feel hungrier or more fatigued, Dr. Gersh says. Estrogen also helps manage cholesterol levels and keeps artery walls and blood vessels flexible and healthy, which is one reason the risk of heart disease jumps as the hormone declines. But you’re only in real trouble if you do nothing.
“Now is the time to start taking really good care of yourself,” Dr. De La Torre says. That means eating lots of fruits and veggies, exercising, practicing good sleep hygiene (no more scrolling social media in bed!), and reducing stress. All help prevent a dangerous pile-on of risk factors, keeping you healthy.
6. Your mental health might take a hit.
“Taking care of your mental health should be a huge priority,” Dr. Gersh says. “Women already have twice the risk of depression and anxiety as men, and that can escalate during the menopause transition.” Menopause symptoms also bring about extra stress (as if your kids flying the nest and aging parents who need care weren’t stressful enough).
You already know it feels good to vent or laugh your way through the tough parts of life, but research suggests positive social support can increase longevity in post-menopausal women, too.