What is Menopause?
Rochelle Weitzner | April 07 , 2019
Think back to your pre-teen years. You probably remember getting “The Talk,” and maybe some earnestly helpful pamphlets, all to prepare you for puberty and periods.
It was useful info, sure. But the part everyone left out was what happens when your period stops. As in, forever.
Where was the pamphlet for that?
Maybe the grown-ups back then didn’t think menopause was worth mentioning because it seemed so far away. Or that we’d be the grown-ups by then and we’d just figure it out on our own. Whatever the reason, don’t feel bad if you’ve found yourself on this page because you’re not actually 100% sure what’s supposed to happen when it happens. We’re here to help with our own (middle-aged) version of “The Talk.”
So, really, what is menopause?
Menopause is natural, normal and marks the end of our reproductive period. The word can be used to refer to changes we go through right before, during and after our periods stop. It’s a process that typically starts around the age of 45, but if it happens before you hit 40, it’s called premature menopause. Premature menopause can happen as a result of chemotherapy, radiation treatments, autoimmune or thyroid diseases and sometimes IVF treatments.
There’s also something called surgical menopause, which is what happens immediately after any procedure that removes the ovaries. Having a hysterectomy – the removal of the uterus – doesn’t automatically result in surgical menopause. (Your ovaries and uterus would both need to be removed for surgical menopause to occur.)
While natural menopause happens over the span of several years, surgical menopause is immediate. The abrupt disruption of hormones can make typical menopause symptoms like hot flashes, mood swings, brain fog and memory loss more severe in this case than when it occurs naturally.
What’s causing it?
You probably already know you’re born with a finite amount of eggs which are stored in our ovaries. Once a month, two of our hormones, estrogen and progesterone, give one (well, sometimes more) of these eggs the cue to leave an ovary, AKA ovulation. Menopause happens when ovulation slows, then stops, and along with it, your period.
There are actually three phases to it.
Phase one is called perimenopause or menopause transition and lasts on average 7-10 years before full-on menopause. This is when symptoms tend to be the most intense due to the extreme fluctuation in estrogen.
At this point, it’s important to know you’re not going crazy. We repeat: YOU ARE NOT GOING CRAZY. These symptoms are very real and not in your head. Make sure you have a doctor that understands what you’re experiencing and can help manage this transition. If your doctor tells you you’re depressed or suffering from anxiety, it might be time to find another doctor.
Here’s what you might experience during perimenopause and beyond:
- Your ovaries gradually start making less estrogen.
- Your periods become irregular. The frequency and number of days you bleed will vary, along with its flow and consistency.
- You may experience hot flashes, night sweats, cold flashes, sleep disruption and vaginal dryness.
- Your skin may start changing due to reduced estrogen and collagen. Acne, excessive dryness, fine lines, thinner skin, saggy skin, loss of tone and changed texture are all completely normal.
- Weight gain, bloating, fatigue and low sex drive are also normal.
- You may feel moody, irritable, anxious or depressed, along with brain fog, poor concentration and memory issues
- Facial hair growth begins, while scalp hair may begin to thin or change texture.
- Heart palpitations, incontinence, achy joints and muscles, sore breasts, headaches, digestive issues, osteoporosis, weakened fingernails, a change in body odor and worsening of allergies can all happen, too.
Phase two is what’s officially known as menopause. At this stage, the ovaries have stopped releasing eggs and producing most of their estrogen. Once you’ve gone 12 full months without a period, the very next day you’re officially in menopause. It lasts just one day, as every day after is called postmenopause.
Phase three is called postmenopause. It begins the day following menopause and is the third and final phase. This part lasts for the rest of your life: You may be done with your period, but you’re never actually “done” with menopause.
For most women, symptoms experienced during perimenopause tend to subside thanks to stabilizing hormone levels. However, it’s still important to make long-term changes to your lifestyle because living with less estrogen means a higher risk of osteoporosis, heart disease, and changes to your vagina and bladder. Make it a priority to work with your doctor to come up with a plan to address these risks.
It’s a lot to take in, but here’s the good news: You’re on this site, and we’re talking about it together. For more on menopause, head to our Community page to find real-life menopause stories, and while you’re there, share yours, too. Our blog, Connect the Dots, will keep you updated with menopause-focused wellness and beauty ideas. And for your hot flashes and your skin, well, we most definitely have that covered.
Menopause skin fluctuations eventually calm down, but a great skincare routine will help preserve tone, texture, brightness, and overall skin and tissue health.