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: :   Menopause Central Menopause Central What Is Menopause?

What Is Menopause?

You've heard the word menopause; you may even remember your mother talking about it. But you never associated the word with yourself. Then a few years ago you started noticing some changes in your body. They may have been ever so subtle—like an occasional blush for no reason, a few unusual monthly flows, or minor mood swings—or they may have been jaw-dropping changes—like full-assault hot flashes or a series of urinary tract infections (UTIs)

You probably were in perimenopause, the period of time when your estrogen levels started fluctuating, causing a number of symptoms.HFN 059 WhatIsMenopause F27121062 This stage precedes menopause, which is officially after you've gone 12 months without a period. But during perimenopause, although your periods might be irregular, there's still a chance you can become pregnant, so you should continue to take precautions unless you want to conceive.

Let's say that you've gone through perimenopause and did experience one or more common symptoms. A year has passed without a period—now what? If menopause is a natural biological process that every woman goes through (with or without difficult symptoms), what exactly is this new journey you're on?

Estrogen: The Queen of Hormones
Women's ovaries produce three main hormones—estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone—that circulate around your body doing, when in balance, important work for your well-being. Their levels may fluctuate at any time but especially during perimenopause, causing for many women the various symptoms discussed on HFN.

By the time menopause occurs, which happens to women at the average age of 51, your ovarian supply of eggs has dramatically decreased, and the quality of your remaining eggs has degraded, resulting in infertility and freedom from menstruation and birth control. Production of both estrogen and progesterone greatly decreases, as well. 

Since estrogen is responsible for thickening your vaginal wall, when estrogen levels drop, the wall tissues get thinner and drier (called atrophic vaginitis), causing painful intercourse for many women. There are several over-the-counter and prescription options to help with this. This thinning of the wall also leaves you more prone to infections, such as UTIs.

Estrogen also has been found in animal models to aid in weight maintenance, so when your estrogen levels decrease, it's up to you more than ever before to exercise and watch your diet. You may even find that although your weight has not changed much, where it appears has. In other words, your fat has redistributed itself, usually to the waist and hips, and without your consent.

HFN-059-WhatIsMenopause-2-F31191208Another wonder of estrogen is its ability to give your skin and hair a youthful look. Many women notice thinner, drier hair and drier skin when they go through menopause. It's a time to pay more attention to moisturizing! And, much to many women's dismay, since your estrogen levels have declined, the testosterone in your body now has a little more influence, and you may see more facial and body hair.

There are more challenges yet when you reach menopause. Estrogen also plays a part in keeping your bones dense and strong. Now you're at risk for osteoporosis, a condition that leaves your bones more brittle. If you haven't already, you should be asking your doctor about adding a calcium supplement with vitamin D to your diet. See HFN's articles on supplements and vitamins for a more detailed discussion.

Make Time for You
So although menopause brings many challenges, it's also a time to regroup (with yourself) in a positive way. Although your life may be complex with competing commitments and stresses (teens, college tuition, aging parents, demanding job), this is a time when you also should pay more attention to yourself. De-stress with activities like gardening, a book club, yoga classes, weekend day trips with your partner or friend, or regular lunch or dinner appointments with your "bff." Learn something new and fun, like belly dancing or making the perfect chocolate soufflé. Or, just sit with yourself and rejoice in all the wisdom you've gained over the years; then reach out and offer to mentor a younger woman. ♀

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