Menopause: What is it actually?

Menopause; it’s a loaded word for some, and there can be much misunderstanding and uncertainty about what is happening in your body and what it means for you. As you try to adapt to your new body, I will attempt to give you a bit of knowledge about what may be or will be happening to you as you progress through “the change.” This series of blog posts will focus on various topics around menopause and offer you some basic solutions to help you navigate this time of your life.

Menopause is divided into three phases: perimenopause, menopause, and post-menopause. Perimenopause is associated with changes in symptoms around the menstrual cycle as your hormone levels start to fluctuate. This can begin in your mid-thirties. If you start to notice bigger changes in mood fluctuations, energy levels, or other physical symptoms like menstrual pain, cramping, or gastrointestinal issues, you are perimenopausal. As you get closer to menopause, your periods may become closer together, last longer or shorter, and the flow may be heavier or lighter. You will probably notice hot flashes and night sweats, which are common for many women. You are in menopause when it has been one year since your last menstrual period. On average, this happens in your early fifties. There are no biological markers to tell you that you are menopausal. You must wait that whole year. As your periods start to get less frequent, it will be a sign to watch out for the year mark. Post-menopause just means that you have hit that one-year mark.

hormonal woman with ice pack because of menopause

So, now menopause is defined, let us discuss what is happening. You have many hormones in your body that act in concert with one another to control everything you do. The main players in menopause are estrogen, progesterone, and to a lesser extent, testosterone. Your ovaries produce estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, although the adrenal gland also produces testosterone. You are born with a limited number of eggs, and once you have no more eggs to release each month, the production of these hormones changes. During perimenopause, estrogen production slows; as you get closer to menopause, the production drastically decreases. Progesterone is also secreted by the ovaries, and production stops during menstrual periods and at menopause. This lack of progesterone can cause periods to last longer and become more irregular and heavier. Testosterone is also important for women as it plays a role in estrogen production. Testosterone levels decline more with age than just due to menopause, but it continues to be produced after menopause via the adrenal glands.

What is so important about estrogen and your menopausal symptoms? Your brain, the control center of your body, is affected by estrogen. The hypothalamus controls body temperature and responds to estrogen levels, so when estrogen levels decline, the hypothalamus cannot control your body temperature, and you get hot flashes. When estrogen does not activate the brain stem, which controls REM sleep, you have sleep disturbances and insomnia. The amygdala controls mood; thus, drops in estrogen can cause mood swings. Brain fog results from a lack of estrogen to the hippocampus, which stores memory. Estrogen is also key for energy production in the brain. The decrease causes the neurons to slow and age faster. Estrogen also interacts with other hormones, and lack of estrogen can promote weight gain, especially around the abdomen, which can increase your risk of chronic diseases. Obviously, this information is general to anyone, and your experiences may differ. If you feel like your mood swings, sleep, pain, or energy levels are really troublesome, listen to your body and contact your physician. Many symptoms can be managed with the help of a physician, but there are things you can do today to help, and I will give you some tips each week on various topics that will empower you to thrive through menopause and beyond.

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