Change is coming and we need to know what to expect during menopause. When I was a child I heard relatives talking amongst themselves about who was “going through the change”. They’d make comments about how so-and-so had been a “battle-ax” for the last 10 years, so it must be the change. These conversations made me terrified of getting older and I kept waiting for my decade long battle-ax phase to begin! Let’s agree to not discuss if and when it came or went (wink).
In the last post we discussed what happens leading up to menopause. Now that we’ve arrived, let’s spend some time going through everything and understand what to expect during menopause. So, first things first, your period has stopped and can I just say hallelujah?!
The Effects of Menopause
Back to business. After several years of menstrual irregularities, menopause is marked by the permanent end of menses. The average age of this completion is 51 and it is primarily caused by hormonal changes. Menopause causes effects throughout the entire body (like the old song goes “the hip bone’s connected to the back bone”). The most common symptoms include hot flashes, vaginal dryness, headache, joint soreness, sleep disturbances, and loss of balance. These symptoms are worse during the first 3-4 years of menopause.
Memory problems such as forgetfulness tend to affect about half of all women, however, its link with dementia is less clear. Problems with balance and forearm fractures from subsequent falls are more common in women above 50 than men. Just to be clear, men have their own issues with balance and memory, but this post is primarily focused on women.
Mood swings are not just for women, ya’ll! Hormonal changes happen to both men and women. For women it’s caused by changes in their estrogen, while men suffer when their testosterone fluctuates. As we stop producing as much estrogen and progesterone our brains are affected. Every person is different, so we won’t all experience the same issues. For sure, one way to minimize the negative effects is to increase activities that release endorphins and increase heart rate, such as ramping up cardio exercise. This will have an added benefit of strengthening bones, reducing weight, and preventing chronic disease.
What to Expect During Menopause with Weight Gain
Sadly, menopause can cause a bit of weight gain. We can blame it on the loss of estrogen, but there are several other factors at play too. Genetics, exercise and eating habits are key contributors. As we age, our bodies simply burn fat at a slower rate. Additionally, aging reduces muscle mass which is directly related to our metabolism. The more muscle we have the faster our body uses up energy.
Menopause fat gain is not inevitable; you can fight it! In order to maintain a healthy weight, we have to increase our physical activity to boost our metabolisms. Otherwise, we need to reduce our caloric intake which is not fun in my opinion. Eating 200 fewer calories per day, along with avoiding sugary drinks, fried foods, and dairy can help to keep away those extra pounds. Reducing 200 calories isn’t as bad as it sounds: 1 tbsp. peanut butter, ¾ doughnut or ½ of a sesame seed bagel.
Night Sweats and Hot Flashes
Hot flashes are a thermoregulatory dysfunction that is caused by estrogen withdrawal. The hypothalamus is essentially the body’s thermostat. It is very sensitive to temperature change. In addition to estrogen, fluctuations in serotonin and norepinephrine increase the core body temperature by half a degree. This rapid change in temperature causes a response. The body essentially “over reacts” and quickly attempts to lower the temperature. Vasodilation sends blood to the skin, hands, and periphery. When combined with sweating, there is a rapid loss of heat. This sudden drop in body temperature is often followed by brief shivering.
Hot Flash Helpers During Menopause
On average, women undergoing menopause experience hot flashes for 5 years. Most do not seek medical treatment for dealing with them. But when they do, hormone replacement therapy is a very common option. Some things I found helpful are to keep a tabletop mini fridge on your nightstand. If you wake up sweating you can pull out a cool roller or a moistened washcloth to roll/press into your body where you need it. There are also cooling pillows and mats so help to keep your head cooler.
Disrupted Sleep Causes
Rosé all day? Perhaps all day is okay, but not in the evening. When you hit menopause, a trick I learned is to start drinking alcohol earlier in the day, so your body has time to process it before bedtime. I’ve had friends say that white wine is easier to process than red and vice versa. You’ll have to test the waters to see which one works for you. As we age our bodies hold less water, making us more sensitive to alcohol. Alcohol also disrupts the circadian rhythm, making sleep less restful. Also try to avoid taking in sugary alcoholic beverages at night as having a high blood sugar will not help you fall asleep.
Caffeine is another sleep disrupter. On average, caffeine lasts in the body for 6 hours. It also has a “half life” which means that if you drink a full cup at 3pm you can still have half of the caffeine in your system until 9pm. If you want to continue drinking caffeinated coffee, the best cutoff time is 12pm, but you may be able to squeak by until 3pm. Even though it’s not easy, some women have to give up alcohol and/or caffeine completely in an effort to get better sleep.
Understanding what to expect during menopause is useful. Aging can be a beautiful thing depending on your perspective. Embracing the changes by taking time to nurture ourselves and prepare delicious, healthy meals can go a long way. Taking long, brisk walks and yoga classes to de-stress is a wonderful way to care for oneself.