Your Complete Guide To Menopause: What, Why, And How It Happens
Menopause is simply a fact of life for most women: once we reach a certain age, we’re going to go through some physical, mental, and very often emotional shifts as our reproductive systems and hormones start to change.
Even though most women grow up understanding that they’re going to reach menopause eventually, the topic is still shrouded in mystery, taboos, and stigmas. The conversations around menopause are limited, which can leave many women wondering: what exactly is happening to my body when I hit menopause?
The truth is, menopause is not the same for everyone, which can make it hard to predict how yours is going to affect you. Here’s everything you need to know about menopause: what it is, why it happens, and how it can really affect you and your life.
What Is Menopause?
Menopause happens when your menstrual cycle stops for a full twelve months, signaling the end of your ability to reproduce and have children the traditional way. It usually happens to women when they’re in their early 50’s, with 51 being the average age that women in the United States reach that milestone. However, some women experience menopause earlier on, either naturally or via surgeries, treatments, or illness.
To understand how menopause works, let’s first brush up on the basics of your reproductive system:
Ever since you hit puberty and began your first period, your reproductive system has been subscribing to a regular, fairly predictable cycle of menstruation. Every month, your ovaries make and release two reproductive hormones called estrogen and progesterone. These two hormones trigger ovulation, or the release of an egg from your ovaries to your fallopian tubes, in the hopes of getting fertilized by sperm. They also trigger a buildup of tissue in your uterus to create a supportive environment that’s optimal for nourishing and growing a fetus.
But when your egg of the month does not get fertilized, estrogen and progesterone levels decrease and eventually give the signal that it’s time to get rid of that excess uterine tissue: this is your period.
And here’s how menopause changes things:
- As your body approaches the age where most women experience menopause, your ovaries start to make less estrogen and progesterone.
- As these hormone levels slowly decline in your system, it affects your normal menstrual cycle, so your period becomes irregular. This can mean shorter cycles, longer cycles, heavier bleeding, and/or spotting, for example.
- Eventually, estrogen and progesterone levels fall to a point where you aren’t releasing eggs into your fallopian tubes at all and not having any periods. Once your period stops for a full twelve months, you have officially reached menopause.
The time leading up to “official” menopause is called perimenopause. Those declining estrogen and progesterone levels can cause several noticeable physical, mental, and emotional symptoms at this time, but you still have the occasional menstrual cycle and the ability to become pregnant under the right conditions. Perimenopause can last for several years before menopause is reached.
Then, after you have officially reached the twelve-month milestone of menopause, you are now post-menopausal.
So that’s the science behind menopause - but it doesn’t stop there. Beyond the technical answer, the hormonal changes that come during this time of your life can also come with symptoms that affect your body composition, mood, and overall wellbeing.
What are you supposed to feel when you hit menopause?
The decrease of estrogen and progesterone can trigger various symptoms when you reach perimenopause. These symptoms of perimenopause can look a little like this:
- You might feel irritable or emotional more often, or have unexplained mood swings
- You might experience hot flashes and night sweats that keep you up at night
- Your period may come and go irregularly
- Your weight might start creeping up, especially around your midsection
- Your sex drive might go way down and sex can be painful too
These classic textbook symptoms are relatively common in menopausal women, with many women experiencing them in varying degrees and intensities. However, this experience isn’t always universal, and the buck doesn’t always stop there.
How women actually feel when they hit menopause
For some women, knowing about these potential symptoms of perimenopause and menopause does not encompass just how overwhelming those symptoms can be and how much they can change their lives.
The menopause journey can look different for everyone, so there’s no standard way that the symptoms present themselves. There are some women who report that they don’t experience much of a change in their day-to-day besides the “classic” menopause symptoms - hot flashes, mood swings, and of course, the irregular menstrual cycle. In these cases, they might see menopause as a blessed relief from the pain and frustration of their regular monthly cycles.
But on the flip side, some women find that the approach of menopause can bring a whole world of specific and extreme discomfort. When they reach menopause, many women feel caught off guard and unprepared for how severe some symptoms can be.
- Some women experience anxiety or depression when they reach menopause, a result of recognizing that they are growing older compounded with the extreme effects that hormonal imbalance can play on their emotions. Some even going so far as to say that they feel like a “shell” of their former selves.
- Some women report hot flashes so bad that they’re left feeling flushed and embarrassed after a particularly sweaty social interaction. Hot flashes can also be extremely debilitating to the point where women start to isolate themselves and avoid interactions so that they can experience them in the privacy of their own homes rather than out in public.
Some women even have hot flashes so extreme that they liken them to panic attacks.
- Some women might find that they’re constantly struggling with a frustrating case of brain fog, fatigue, and temporary memory loss that gets in the way of their normal daily routines both at home and in the workplace.
- Others may find that their decreasing sex drive and extreme mood swings start to take their toll on their relationships.
So, for some women, the physical symptoms of menopause can obviously be very extreme and get in the way of their health and daily lives.
What’s worse (and what doesn’t get talked about enough): menopause can take an extreme toll on your emotional health and mental state.
Menopause can leave some women feeling very much alone because symptoms can vary so widely. When you’re the only one you know who experiences menopausal symptoms to so severe of a degree, it can leave you feeling misunderstood, overdramatic, and like you have to bear the burden completely on your own.
The most severe cases of menopausal symptoms can have women feeling they’ve lost touch with who they are, and that can go on to affect every area of their lives. And, after all, menopause is a big deal - it signals that you’re growing older and that one door is closing.
There’s also still a lot of stigma, misunderstandings, and stereotypes surrounding menopause that can increase the feeling of isolation. Even though it’s a completely normal phase of life that happens to every woman, it’s still a taboo subject in many circles. It’s not presented commonly in mass media - and if it is, it’s usually accompanied by damaging stereotypes that don’t help the issue. The needs of menopausal women aren’t being met or even addressed by brands, either. So it leaves many women feeling like they can’t even speak about what they’re going through out of fear, shame, and embarrassment.
In short, there’s no one universal experience of menopause - different women get hit with different degrees of symptoms and intensities. This is why it’s so important to open the conversations around menopause with those around you, as well as with communities of like-minded women. Talking with others who understand what you’re going through and can empathize shows you that you’re not alone and is an invaluable resource for support during such a strange and, for some, trying, time.
Is it menopause, or something else?
Another reason that menopause can be confusing and overwhelming for many women is that it can sometimes be hard to detect and recognize right away.
The earliest symptoms of menopause can be pretty easy to spot if you’re expecting them and know what you’re looking for, but they can also overlap with other common conditions and health issues that can make it a little more difficult to understand where you stand with your health.
Some of the very first symptoms you might experience that indicate you could be perimenopausal include:
- Irregular periods
- Mood swings
- Unexplained weight changes
But at the same time, these symptoms could also be brought on by a wide variety of other health conditions, like:
- Thyroid disorders
- Other reproductive system issues, including certain cancers
Remember, the symptoms that are associated with menopause are understood to be caused by changes to your estrogen and progesterone levels since hormones can affect so many different systems in your body. But it could very well also be the case that you’re dealing with an imbalance of a different set of hormones.
For example, hot flashes, a decrease in your sex drive, and unexplained changes in your weight are some of the most classic textbook signs that you are approaching menopause - but they are also a common symptom of a thyroid disorder. Your thyroid produces hormones as well, and having too much or too little of those thyroid hormones can have many of the same effects as an imbalance of your reproductive hormones.
If you’re concerned or unsure as to whether you’re dealing with perimenopause or something else, the best thing to do in these cases is to consult with a physician. They can conduct tests that can give you insight into your hormone levels and determine whether you’re menopausal or dealing with another health issue.
How To Deal With Menopause
If you determine that the changes going on in your health are happening because of menopause, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and out of control. After all, this change in hormones is completely normal, but it still leaves you with symptoms that you can’t quite explain or change immediately.
However, you don’t have to resign yourself to suffering in silence, like so many women in past generations have.
In order to thrive during menopause, you can:
- Talk it out with your circle. Too many women are afraid or ashamed to talk about menopause since it can be a loaded subject. But bringing it up with your loved ones can normalize the subject, foster a more supportive and understanding environment for you, and can even prepare future generations of the women in your life to experience menopause when the time comes for them.
- Join a community. Besides bringing it up more often with your friends and family, it can also be invaluable to discuss menopause with women who are also going through it and understand. It helps you feel less alone and gives you insight into how other women are dealing with the more extreme symptoms.
- Control what you can. Symptoms due to hormonal changes can have you feeling like you’re completely out of control of your own body, but some of the more frustrating symptoms of menopause can be combated and relieved by an at-home approach. For example, if you’re fighting off menopausal weight gain, you can control certain factors like making sure that you’re eating a well-balanced, nutritionally dense diet and increasing your physical activity level.
- Consult with a doctor. If your symptoms have you feeling like you need an intervention, there are medical treatments out there. For example, hormone replacement therapy is a medical option you can discuss with your doctor to replenish your reproductive hormones and minimize the effects of menopause.
You don’t have to take the back seat when it comes to menopause - sometimes, you just have to adjust accordingly.
Final Thoughts On Menopause
For most women, menopause is going to come sooner or later, and the changes can be either subtle and inconvenient or all-encompassing and dramatic, or somewhere in between. Understanding why it’s happening and how it can affect you is crucial for thriving even in the midst of mental, emotional, and physical changes - as is opening up the conversation around the topic.