For women, there are milestones we celebrate, milestones we dread and milestones we approach … apprehensively. Menopause is one that holds a lot of uncertainty, certainly some apprehension and quite possibly some fear. We can mitigate this by learning the truth about menopause, discussing the experience of real women and exposing the myths with an expert. Let’s chat.
What exactly is menopause?
To start, let’s define menopause. Dr. Katie Haney, an OB/GYN at Centennial Women’s Group, offered her expertise around the topic, laughing, “I love to talk about this. It’s important to get the knowledge out there.” She continues, “Menopause happens when you have no period for one year. That’s the main hallmark.” Our ovaries stop making an egg each month, and periods cease. For many women, including interviewee Laura*, this can take some time. Laura tells us, “I was going on nine months without a period, and then it came back. The marker then moves, and you start counting from day one.” But, once one year passes, you’re in menopause, and that means you always will be. The first three years are when women often notice symptoms and can be the hardest. And, as for when it happens, she tells us that the median age is 51.5.
What are the symptoms?
The transition and symptoms are different for different women. Dr. Haney tells us, “There are some women whose lives are turned upside down, and there are some women who just breeze through it and are glad they don’t bleed anymore. Usually, women fall somewhere between those two extremes.”
Laura tells us that she didn’t have one single symptom, aside from her missing period. “I had always expected these dramatic symptoms, imagining myself breaking into a sweat in the middle of a conversation at a party, so I was surprised when I never experienced that.” One of the lucky few, Laura is a great example that menopause is different for every woman.
The most common symptoms are hot flashes and night sweats. “Beyond that,” Dr. Haney tells us, “difficulty sleeping and brain fogginess are symptoms some experience.” While some will only experience those symptoms for a short period of time, there are women who endure them forever. Likely, they decrease in frequency and severity over time.
We interviewed real women about their experiences, and here are the unfiltered versions of what they had to say …
“Perspiring during sleep is real. I never had mood swings, but I did notice other people around me did. (Just kidding!) I heard someone call the belly fat increase a ‘menopot,’ which is true for me but no one else apparently. Menopause is like everything else — eat right, exercise more, always be nice no matter how you feel.”
“It has been HOT! The hardest thing I thought was being very emotional bordering on irrational over little things — knowing it’s crazy but can’t stop.”
“I was thrown into early menopause at 31 after having a complete hysterectomy. Because estrogen feeds endometriosis, which was a factor in my early hysterectomy, the doctor did not give me any hormones for eight weeks post op. At that young age, my body was on an estrogen train. Menopause came quickly. HOT. Like nothing you can explain until you experience it. It was as if my clothes were on fire, and they needed to come off ASAP. I am usually very even-tempered and easy going. When I went back for my eight-week appointment, I burst into tears when the doctor walked in (luckily he was a friend of ours). I told him I needed a psychiatrist. That my jaws and teeth hurt so badly from clutching them as I was trying to keep up my normal disposition. It was crazy. He laughed and said my well had run dry. He slapped an estrogen patch on my bottom. Popped a Premarin in my mouth and gave me hug. I called him that night laughing and crying, ‘I’m back!!’ Childbirth and menopause … not for the weak … hence the reason men don’t go through it.”
“Hot flashes are real … and I still have them … not as much as in the beginning, but occasionally now. I will get so hot that I am ‘perspiring’ all over and my face will turn beet red … and hot flashes can happen at the most inopportune times. They can be embarrassing.”
“I didn’t love menopause, and I’m very thankful for my three children that I had. But truthfully … I don’t miss my period at all. I don’t. I had a hysterectomy early, and it’s the best blessing – once you have the children and all that – that’s ever happened. I don’t miss it all.”
“The hot flash for me started in my chest and spread up and down. Nothing could cool it down.”
Addressing the Myths Around Hormones
Because of the varying nature of the experience, there are lots of myths out there. Mostly, they revolve around hormone treatment for menopause. Dr. Haney says, “People need to have realistic expectations about what hormones will do for them. It can be great and helpful, but the results are within reason.”
First, there is no hormone replacement that is going to help with weight gain. “It’s an unfriendly time for metabolism,” Dr. Haney tells us. Many women complain they have put a few pounds on, and the things they could once do to burn it off, won’t work. It’s a combination of menopause and age, but regardless, hormones will not aid in weight loss.
Second, if women have underlying anxiety or depression, it might rear its head during menopause. Hormone replacements will not treat these conditions, and they should be addressed separately with appropriate treatment.
Third, there is a lot of misinformation about nutraceutical and supplements out there. According to Dr. Haney, companies can claim to help with weight gain, hot flashes and mental unclarity on the bottle, with absolutely zero data to back it up. They are not held accountable, and there are no studies that show they work.
Fourth, and on the flipside, there are women who completely avoid any hormone treatment, afraid that it is unsafe or causes cancer. On the contrary, “There are a lot of hormone treatments that can really help. there is value in having a real conversation with your OB/GYN, who will take into account your medical history and family medical history, to determine the best plan for you.”
Dr. Haney stressed the importance of honesty with your doctor. Many times, women don’t consider supplements a medicine they should share. But, they come in with all of these symptoms, and it’s important to share, even if it is just a supplement.
Beyond that, there were two very, very important things that Dr. Haney wants all women to know. First, you should absolutely not take estrogen alone if you still have a uterus. “Estrogen is the main hormone that we would give symptoms of menopause. If you have a uterus and haven’t had a hysterectomy, you have to have progesterone as well to prevent uterine cancer.” Shockingly, there are well-respected physicians in the community who prescribe estrogen to women to deal with their symptoms. If you have had a hysterectomy, it’s perfectly acceptable to take estrogen on its own, but otherwise, it’s actually dangerous for your body.
Second, if you have any bleeding after menopause, your doctor always needs to know about it. Dr. Haney reiterates, “Those are two completely non-negotiable deal breakers. You must call your doctor if you have any bleeding, and you should never take estrogen alone if you have a uterus.”
At the end of the day, menopause is different for every body, and it is best to consult with your doctor about your symptoms, your treatment and your personal experience. Though, we love what one of our women shared, and know that Dr. Haney recommends the same … “Menopause is like everything else — eat right, exercise more, always be nice no matter how you feel.”
Disclaimer: Your doctor knows you best! Always consult with your personal OB/GYN when it comes to making decisions about your body.
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