Menopause: the basics, facts, and myths every woman should know
Menopause is a normal phase that every woman goes through. Each person will have a different experience, but it’s important to know these facts in the basic guide to menopause. In a recent survey, nearly half of women (41%) in the USA said they didn’t feel like they had enough support and understanding around menopause. (Cowell, AC, et al., 2023) The results showed they were uncertain regarding the symptoms and treatments associated with menopause, as well as felt a lack of support from their loved ones and colleagues.
Knowing about menopause and what to expect can make the journey of going through it – which can be tough – much easier.
What is menopause?
Menopause marks the end of your period cycle and your reproductive journey. It affects every single woman, with most reaching it by age 51. Menopause occurs when your body goes through a hormonal change, where estrogen and progesterone levels decrease. (Peacock. K, et al., 2023)
Oestrogen, which is known as the ‘female’ hormone, is responsible for developing female characteristics, like thickening the uterus lining to prepare for an egg and stimulating the production of breast tissue. Progesterone also helps prepare the lining for the egg and is important during the early stages of pregnancy.
As you reach menopause, the levels of these two hormones fluctuate and eventually drop down to very low levels. This can give you symptoms like hot flashes, insomnia, fatigue and irregular periods.
The stages of menopause
Menopause goes through four main stages:
- Pre-menopause – During this, you won’t experience any menopausal symptoms and will still have your periods.
- Perimenopause – This is most likely to likely occur in your mid-40s, but it can happen later. You’ll notice some changes to your body, like your period will no longer be regular and you may get symptoms like hot flashes.
- Menopause – This marks the end of your reproductive cycle. It’s officially labeled as menopause when you no longer have a period for 12 months.
- Post menopause – This is the time after menopause. You might still experience some symptoms, but they should be milder and will likely go away over the next few years.
How will menopause affect me?
Menopause affects each woman uniquely; some might not get any symptoms, while others will struggle. There are a range of menopausal symptoms, but some common ones are:
- Hot flashes
- Irregular periods
- Mood changes
- Reduced sexual drive
- Sleep disturbances
- Vaginal dryness and discomfort
- Changes in skin, hair, and nails
- Weight gain
There’s also an increased risk of certain health conditions, such as osteoporosis (when your bones have weakened, making them fragile) and cardiovascular diseases, due to hormonal changes. If you’re worried about developing these conditions, talk to your OB-GYN. They’ll give you advice on how to prevent them and might recommend medication and supplements to take.
Treating menopausal symptoms
You don’t have to deal with menopausal symptoms without support. There are some medications you can take and lifestyle changes you can make to help you get through them.
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) – A prescription medicine you take to increase your hormone levels to manage the symptoms of menopause. You can get them as pills, patches or as a gel.
Vaginal gel – A cream or gel applied to your vagina to combat vaginal dryness. This helps reduce pain around the vagina and can make sex more comfortable.
Therapy – Menopause can affect you mentally. It might make you sad, anxious or angry for no reason at all. Going to therapy can help control your emotions and support your mental well-being.
Healthy diet – Try to avoid spicy foods to reduce symptoms like hot flashes. Also eating foods high in calcium, like kale, broccoli, and milk, can reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
Exercise – Keeping fit can help avoid the extra weight gained during menopause. It can also improve your heart and bone health. Some exercises you can do include swimming, cycling, and running.
Busting common myths about menopause
There’s a lot of misinformation online about menopause. One of the biggest myths is that HRT is dangerous. HRT usually contains synthetic forms of estrogen, progesterone or both. It increases hormone levels that have been reduced during menopause to alleviate the symptoms.
Like all medicines, there are side effects to taking HRT. Some of them are mild, like tender breasts, while some might be more severe, such as increased risk of blood clots. However, the risk of increased blood clots when taking HRT is still quite slim. One study found the risk went from 1.4% in non-HRT users to 1.9%, in patients using HRT. (Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care, 2020)
Another misconception is that menopause starts after the age of 50. While the average age of menopause is 51 in the USA, you’ll experience symptoms of menopause in your mid to late 40s.
And another common myth is you can’t have a sex life after menopause. This isn’t true for many women. While your libido might decrease, there are treatments available to help with this. Vaginal dryness is another common symptom of menopause, which can make sex uncomfortable – but vagina gel can help to alleviate this.
- Cowell, AC, et al., (2023). Let’s Talk Menopause: Survey Results & Vidcast. [online] Treated. Available at: https://www.treated.com/blog-female-health/lets-talk-menopause-survey-results-vidcast
- Peacock K, Ketvertis KM. Menopause. [Updated 2022 Aug 11]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK507826/
- InformedHealth.org [Internet]. Cologne, Germany: Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG); 2006-. Menopause: What are the benefits and risks of long-term hormone therapy? [Updated 2020 Jul 2]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK564986/