Despite the fact that 1.3 million women go through menopause every year, it’s only recently that the world has started paying attention to menopausal symptoms. This is long overdue, given that the symptoms of menopause go far beyond the oft-parodied hot flashes.
“It’s well established that menopause can affect a woman from head to toe,” says Somi Javaid, MD, United States Congressman of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and founder and chief medical officer of HerMD. Menopause impacts your sex life, your mental health, and even your wardrobe. It’s time to make the symptoms of menopause as prominent and well-recognized as those experienced during puberty.
As important as these lifestyle changes are for women, talking about menopause is more than culturally important. “It’s important to talk about the impact that a drop in estrogen has on the body, in general,” says obstetrician Leah Millheiser, MD, a certified menopause practitioner with the North American Menopause Society and chief medical officer of the Evernow Menopause Treatment Center. . “This includes loss of bone mass, which can lead to osteoporosis and life-threatening bone fractures down the road; heart disease; Type 2 diabetes; weight, skin and hair changes; cognitive changes; and changes in sexual function (think decreased libido, vaginal dryness, and pain during sex). According to Dr. Millheiser, “knowledge is the key here.” As well as a good relationship with your doctor, so that you can decide together on the best menopause treatment for you.
So what can you expect? Here’s everything you need to know about the symptoms of menopause.
But first, what is menopause?
Menopause is defined as the cessation of ovarian function and is officially diagnosed when you have gone a full year without a period. However, you may experience pre-menopausal symptoms, also known as perimenopause, for years before that. “From puberty through menopause, your period is the result of a follicle or egg being released during ovulation and fertilization failing,” says Lizellen La Folette, MD, board-certified obstetrician and medical advisor for Stripes. “The cycle is controlled by estrogen and progesterone, our reproductive hormones. At menopause, the ovaries become more and more resistant to ovulation because there are fewer and fewer follicles to release.
This drop is not linear, which is why you may experience years of irregular periods and early menopausal symptoms before you officially enter menopause. (For most women, the menopausal transition begins around age 45 — the average age of diagnosis of menopause is 51.) The result is that “the brain-ovary connection goes from a well-oiled machine that produces regular cycles to a state of stress and dysfunction,” explains Dr. La Folette.
What are the common symptoms of menopause?
Big changes are to be expected during this time, and while they may be completely natural, the symptoms of menopause can seem quite disorienting. Much like the symptoms you might experience during your period or pregnancy, menopause symptoms are systemic, which means they will cause changes in expected places (like your vagina) and in some less expected places (like your vagina). skin).
Common symptoms of menopause include:
Hot flashes and night sweats
At the mention of menopause, the first thing you probably think of are vasomotor symptoms, or hot flashes. Hot flashes can be different for every woman. They can include excessive sweating, heart palpitations, anxiety, and even chills.
Aside from night sweats that soak the sheets and can make you panic in the middle of the night, hormonal changes can also cause other sleep disturbances. Postmenopausal women are more likely to develop sleep disorders like sleep apnea, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Your sex life during menopause and perimenopause will likely include some uncomfortable changes: low libido, vaginal dryness, pain during intercourse, and problems with orgasm are all common. Impacts on sexual functioning and libido are also commonly reported during perimenopause. (Don’t worry, there are plenty of hormonal and non-hormonal menopause treatments that can help, and more lube than ever you can buy.)
Thinning hair isn’t an “official” symptom of menopause since it’s not related to loss of estrogen, says gynecologist Mary Jane Minkin, MD, a menopause specialist and clinical professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Yale, but it is still commonly reported in early menopause. If you experience this, you are not alone.
The drop in your estrogen levels during menopause can wreak havoc on your skin. “Estrogen plays a role in collagen production, elasticity, thickness, and moisture levels in the skin, as well as the formation of healthy blood vessels,” says Sarvenaz Zand, MD, board-certified dermatologist at San Francisco and founder of Zand Dermatology. “When we produce less estrogen, we begin to see the opposite: fine lines and wrinkles, dryness, sensitivity, dullness, sagging, and less rosy glow.”
Menopause can also trigger the onset of rosacea. “We also lose volume of fat and bone in our cheeks, so the jowls become more prominent,” says Dr. Zand.
Menopause can also be accompanied by breast tenderness and loss of volume. As estrogen declines, mammary glands shrink and breasts tend to lose firmness, according to Penn Medicine.
Menopause can also trigger many mental changes, these so-called mood swings. “Mood and memory disorders, such as depression and anxiety, are common during menopause,” says Dr. Javaid. Between 18% and 40% of women suffer from depression during menopause and perimenopause, and up to a quarter experience new anxiety, according to a study published in 2021.
“It’s really important to put pen to paper in a diary and track changes in mood and irritability to see if there’s a pattern,” says Dr. La Folette. “Many issues are overlooked over the years amid the balancing act of raising children, busy work schedules and the stresses of life.”
“The brain-hormone connection is integral to how you feel your brain works,” says Dr. La Folette. The combination of hormonal fluctuations and age during the menopausal years leads to a loss of synaptic connections in the brain. “Women report memory problems during menopause, such as difficulty finding words, brain fog, and forgetfulness,” adds Dr. Javaid.
Urinary symptoms, such as UTIs and incontinence, are also very common during menopause, says Dr. Minkin: “I teach people how to do Kegel exercises several times a day.”
When should I see a doctor about my menopause symptoms?
Although menopause can be a totally natural process, that doesn’t mean you have to live with its symptoms. When you start noticing irregularities in your menstrual cycle, talk to your doctor. “Because women can experience a wide range of symptoms during menopause, any new symptoms, such as those that are considered unusual for your body, should be discussed with your healthcare provider,” says Dr. Javaid.
When you enter menopause, don’t panic, she adds. There are many menopause treatment options, hormonal and non-hormonal, to give you a better quality of life.
Macaela MacKenzie is a writer and wellness writer. She writes about self-care, mental health, fertility, and women’s equality with a focus on removing the stigma around women’s health.