Menopause is a natural process marking the end of a woman’s fertility period. It is often associated with uncomfortable body changes that can affect your quality of life. Understanding this unique stage can help you effectively manage the changes in your body.  

The Stages of Menopause

Menopause generally occurs in three stages lasting over the course of about twenty years. An additional stage, early menopause, is triggered by unnatural causes. Here are the four stages of menopause, in the order of occurrence.

Perimenopause

Perimenopause occurs about three to five years before menopause begins. “During perimenopause, your estrogen and progesterone levels can develop a new balance,” says Mary Allison Mitchell, DO, a family medicine physician with Adventist HealthCare Adventist Medical Group. This is usually when women begin to experience the uncomfortable symptoms generally associated with menopause, such as hot flashes, mood changes and headaches.

Early Menopause

Unlike the other stages, early menopause is triggered by unnatural causes. Examples of unnatural causes include undergoing surgery to remove your reproductive organs or experiencing reproductive organ damage from medical treatments.

Menopause

Most women reach menopause when they are 51 or 52 years old after they’ve missed their period for one year. “During this time, you may or may not experience any symptoms,” Dr. Mitchell says.

Postmenopause

Postmenopause occurs in the years after you’ve reached menopause. During this stage, your symptoms may be similar to those experienced during perimenopause. “At this stage, your risk for other health conditions, such as heart disease and osteoporosis, can increase,” says Dr. Mitchell.

Dealing with your Symptoms

Here are some common symptoms you may experience, why they occur and what you can do about them:

Headaches

If you used to get headaches or migraines around your menstrual cycle, you may be at higher risk of experiencing them during menopause. These headaches usually stop after you’ve reached menopause and your hormone levels are consistently low.

Mood changes

Some women going through menopause report mood swings, anxiety and depression. There may be several reasons why you may be feeling blue during this time. “If you are feeling irritable or mildly depressed while going through this process, reach out to your primary care doctor or a therapist for help,” says Dr. Mitchell.

Hot flashes

One of the most common symptoms women experience during perimenopausal are hot flashes. Hot flashes are temporary, recurring episodes of warmth or heat on the upper body or face. Hormonal shifts and changes in your body’s internal thermostat may explain why women experience hot flashes. Hot flashes generally follow a consistent pattern among the women who experience them. To reduce the discomfort they cause, consider dressing in layers and avoid drinking caffeine and alcohol.

Weight gain

Menopause often slows down your metabolism, leading to weight gain. You may need to be more vigilant about eating healthy and exercising frequently to control any gains and to keep your heart healthy.

Trouble falling asleep

Lower estrogen levels and hot flashes can make sleeping at night more difficult than before. Consider changing your sleep environment to make it more calming and establish a consistent sleep schedule so you can get better rest.

It’s important to remember that most symptoms are normal. However, if your symptoms are severe, see your doctor. “There are medications and other therapies that could help restore your hormonal balance and increase your comfort,” says Dr. Mitchell.

Sources: The North American Menopause Society, Women’s Health Research Institute, Mayo Clinic

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