6 Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Menopause
Growing up, a lot of what you learned about menopause probably came by way of popular culture. On TV shows and movies, women struggling through menopause are moody, unpredictable and whiny. Those around them treat their transition as an annoying and somewhat shameful inconvenience.
If you were really lucky, you may have learned more about what menopause is really like from an older family member such as your mother, and aunt, or even a grandparent.
Stereotypes can be misleading. It also doesn’t help that menopause is actually pretty complicated, and individual experiences of it can vary drastically.
Because menopause is a transition, not a discreet event, it also can be difficult to figure out when it starts and ends.
So if you are entering that transition yourself or think you might be, you probably have far more questions than answers regarding menopause.
So let’s go over 6 things that you probably don’t know about menopause that will be helpful to know before you are too far into the transition:
1. What you think of as “menopause” is probably perimenopause.
The first common misconception regarding menopause is what it actually is in the first place.
If somebody is experiencing hot flashes, irregular periods and other unpleasant symptoms, somebody may say that that person is “going through menopause.” In fact, she might say so herself.
But this would actually be incorrect.
When you have gone an entire year without a period, and your ovaries have stopped producing estrogen and progesterone, that is what is defined correctly as menopause.
For a doctor to say you have reached menopause, both of these things need to have taken place.
The timeframe leading up to that during which production of these hormones is reducing and periods have become irregular is properly referred to as “perimenopause.”
It is during perimenopause that most of the symptoms of the transition are most pronounced. This is when hormone levels are unpredictable and irregular, which is the source of those symptoms.
After you actually hit menopause and hormone production ceases, typically, these symptoms also cease and/or reduce (though there are some exceptions).
Indeed, this means that actual menopause is something that you might even end up looking forward to rather than dreading. That is around when you’ll probably begin feeling better.
Key Point: The time of declining hormone production and symptoms such as hot flushes is colloquially called “menopause,” but is correctly called “perimenopause.” Menopause occurs when this process is complete, and hormone production has stopped.
2. Perimenopause can last a long time.
The average length of perimenopause is just a few years. The average age to reach menopause (actual menopause, when hormone production and periods have stopped) is 51.
This is fairly common knowledge. So many women expect that around age 48 or 49, they might start experiencing hot flashes and other symptoms, and they expect those symptoms to go away in their early 50s.
But not all women spend the same amount of time in perimenopause. For some, it only lasts several months.
But for those who are unlucky, it is possible for perimenopause to last as long as a decade.
It is also worth noting that it is possible to experience early menopause. It is defined as premature if it happens before you reach the age of 40.
Put together, this means that it is possible to spend the entirety of your 40s or even your 30s in perimenopause.
For some women, perimenopause can even begin before turning 30.
Naturally, if you were convinced you were “too young for menopause” and were experiencing the symptoms of it, you might go on quite a wild goose chase checking other possibilities before thinking of asking your doctor for a hormone test.
This is why it is helpful to know that perimenopause (what you may think of as “menopause”) can happen when you are younger.
It doesn’t guarantee that the symptoms you are experiencing are related to perimenopause, but it is something to put on your list of possibilities to bring up at your next clinic visit.
Key Point: Although the average perimenopause lasts a few years and ends around age 51, perimenopause can last on the order of a decade, and can start as early as your 20s or 30s.
3. The transition of menopause can be very different from person to person.
I mentioned previously that one of the reasons why there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding menopause is because the transition can vary a great deal from one woman to the next.
Yet this is something that quite a few people are unaware of.
Not only can the timeframe for perimenopause vary drastically, but so can the symptoms women experience.
Here are a couple of examples of two ways that menopausal women might experience their transitions:
- Sally’s perimenopause has an easily identifiable onset at age 48. She begins experiencing hot flushes, night sweats, and mood swings. Her sex drive plummets. Thankfully, it ends when she turns 50.
- Bertha’s doctor informs her at age 36 that she is probably in perimenopause. But neither of them are sure when it began. She has been experiencing hot flushes on and off since her late 20s. She gets frequent headaches. Her sex drive has actually increased. Sometimes she feels great, and other times she feels awful. But aside from being annoyed by her symptoms, her mood is stable. It ends when she turns 44.
- June’s menopause happened suddenly. She had symptoms for several months, and then simply stopped having periods.
- Cass’s menopause lasted for a few years, but her symptoms continued afterwards for some time, gradually decreasing. She didn’t feel completely back to herself until a decade later.
Your experience might be more like Sally’s or more like Bertha’s—or it could be completely different from either.
Key Point: It is common to see a stereotypical image of menopause presented in the media. But there are many different ways that perimenopause symptoms can present. Two women comparing stories of perimenopause may find many commonalities, but they may also find as many differences.
4. There are many lesser-known symptoms of menopause. Be aware!
What are the symptoms of perimenopause? The ones that spring most readily to mind are probably the dreaded hot flushes and night sweats. You probably also are aware that menopause can come with fatigue, low libido and vaginal dryness, and mood changes.
But there are quite a few possible symptoms of the transition which many menopausal women are less aware of:
- Dry skin. As estrogen levels taper off, you may find yourself reaching for moisturizer more than you did in the past.
- Thinning hair. This is one of the menopausal symptoms you may notice when looking in the mirror each day.
- Sleep problems. Both changing hormone levels and uncomfortable symptoms such as night sweats can lead to insomnia. This can further heighten daytime fatigue.
- Weight gain. Many women end up putting on some extra pounds as their hormone levels change. Exercise regularly if you want to avoid having to increase your belt size.
- Headaches. While you do not hear about it a lot, it is also possible to get headaches as your hormone levels fluctuate. These could include migraines, tension headaches or both.
- Increased sex drive. Although a lot of women have a drop in libido associated with menopause, some women experience the exact opposite.
That is not a complete list of menopausal symptoms either. There are more you might experience.
Key Point: The symptoms of perimenopause include not only those which are well-known, but also some which you may not even realize are associated with the transition.
5. How difficult menopause is may depend in part on cultural factors.
If you grew up in the Western world, you may have a set perception that menopause is a painful, difficult, unpleasant life experience.
But this is not a universal perception. There are cultures which perceive menopause in just the opposite way.
As Dr. Mary Jane Minkin of the Yale Medical School explains, “In societies where age is more revered and the older woman is the wiser and better woman, menopausal symptoms are significantly less bothersome. Where older is not better, many women equate menopause with old age, and symptoms can be much more devastating.”
The article also paraphrases anthropologist Melissa Melby as saying, “the cultural differences highlighted by the survey responses underscore how regional differences in diet, physical activity, attitudes toward aging and expectations about menopause might influence how people experience symptoms.”
Professor Sandra Thompson also weighed in, saying, “If menopause symptoms were due solely to hormonal changes then the menopausal experience would be more homogenous. The social context in which a woman lives is important to her understanding and experience of the menopausal transition. When looking at different countries, variations in symptom reporting can be attributed to language differences, culturally shaped expectations about menopause, culturally influenced gender roles and socioeconomic status.”
It is easy to imagine an example of how this might unfold.
If you live in a Western culture and you have a standard Western outlook on old age and menopause, the following might occur:
- You may feel depressed about getting older, and question what will happen to your social roles. This may have a harmful effect on your self-esteem, and could also lead to anxiety.
- Being depressed and anxious could increase stress, leading to a heightening of your physical symptoms.
- A typical Western diet is high in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, and is also lower in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. An unhealthy diet will not help you feel better.
- Growing up with images of exhausted women fanning themselves as they sprawl lethargically on couches may lead you to instinctively behave in a similar fashion. You might work out less than you would had you grown up with a different set of images. This could lead to weight gain, and might also increase other symptoms.
- Other people may treat you differently. Through their cultural lens of perception, they may be prone to exaggerating your symptoms and the burden you impose. Your social roles may change just as you feared, and through no fault of your own. You may suddenly find yourself treated as less attractive and less capable of keeping up with daily life. You might then start seeing yourself the way others do and believing these negative things about yourself.
It is easy to imagine that this combination of cultural factors could add up to a more challenging transition through menopause, and that those challenges might express as more pronounced physical symptoms.
But if you are aware of this going into the experience, you can learn more about how other cultures look at old age as well as menopause. In doing so, you might be able to reframe the experience and perhaps educate those around you.
Hopefully, this will make a difference, reducing both distressing physical and psychological experiences linked to menopause.
Key Point: In the West, we are brought up with negative views concerning old-age and menopause. These views appear to be capable of making menopause symptoms worse than they need to be. By reframing how we see menopause, we may be able to experience an easier life change.
6. Supplements can help you manage your menopause symptoms.
While HRT is an option, many women choose to manage their menopausal symptoms using herbal remedies.
Nonetheless, there are quite a few menopausal women who have no idea that these remedies exist. And it is certainly good to be informed and have a chance to explore all of your options before you decide on a course of treatment.
Some of your options in this department include black cohosh, Vitex, red clover, Dong Quai, kudzu, soy, DIM and wild yam. To learn about these in detail, please read Essential Herbs for Female Hormone Balance.
Take note that with herbal remedies, there is no one-size-fits-all solution, because (as discussed), there is no one-size-fits-all experience of menopause.
So, it may take some trial and error before you identify which herbs are the right fit for your needs. It’s also possible that those needs could change over the course of perimenopause.
Conclusion: The More You Learn About Menopause, the Easier Menopause Can Be
We have now had a chance to clear up some misconceptions surrounding menopause and share some facts but you might not have known about how long menopause can last and what kinds of symptoms you can experience.
The more information you go in with, the more you can do to take care of your body, mind and spirit through this time of change.
So keep exploring the posts on our blog to continue to increase your knowledge. No matter how long your own perimenopause lasts, hopefully you can learn how to reduce your symptoms.