Your mom had terrible hot flashes. Your best friend had unbearable mood swings and couldn't get a good night's sleep. Now as you approach menopause, you wonder how your body will be affected during this life transition.
Body changes long before menopause
Menopause marks the end of a woman's natural ability to conceive a child. It occurs when you have not had a menstrual period for a year.
But the body starts prepping for this event well before you stop your period. Perimenopause is the period of time leading up to menopause. It starts when the ovaries begin producing less estrogen. Perimenopause can last anywhere from two to 10 years and ends one year after your final menstrual period. During this time, you may have symptoms related to the changes in your hormones.
9 symptoms to watch for
Symptoms of perimenopause are as unique as the person who has them. Predicting exactly what symptoms you'll have is near impossible. Some women have many, while other women barely notice any changes. Likewise, you cannot foresee how long perimenopause will last.
If you have any of the following changes, this may signal that menopause is on the horizon.
1) Hot flashes
These are the most common symptom of perimenopause. Three out of four women will have them. A hot flash is a sudden burst of heat in the upper body and face. Your face may turn red and you may sweat. They can cause temporary discomfort and embarrassment, but they are not harmful to your health. Dressing in layers and avoiding triggers - like hot weather, hot drinks, spicy foods and alcohol - may make you more comfortable.
2) Sleep problems
Many women have insomnia and sleep disturbances as a result of hot flashes at night. If you do not get enough rapid eye movement or REM sleep (the time when you dream), you won't feel rested. Try to stick to a regular sleep schedule, get daily exercise and limit caffeine and alcohol.
3) Irregular periods
These are a result of the ovaries making less estrogen. You may skip a period, have a heavier or lighter flow or the duration of your period may be longer or shorter. In time, your period will stop. Some menstrual changes are not normal, though. See your doctor if you have any of these symptoms:
- Periods less than three weeks apart
- Heavy bleeding
- Spotting (bleeding in between periods)
- Periods that last longer than a week
- Vaginal bleeding or spotting that comes on after not having any periods for a year
4) Vaginal changes
The drop in estrogen causes the vaginal lining to get thin and dry. This can lead to itching and burning and cause sex to be painful. Over-the-counter vaginal lubricants can ease discomfort.
5) Bladder changes
Lower estrogen levels cause thinning of the lining of the urethra, and the pelvic muscles may weaken with age. This may lead to symptoms of urinary incontinence, such as leaking or an urgent need to use the bathroom. Pelvic floor (Kegel) exercises may help.
6) Lack of interest in sex
Sex drive decreases with age in both men and women. The lower level of hormones may affect your interest in sex. Other factors such as stress, disease or medications can also play a role.
7) Mood swings and other emotional changes
his may be due to the varying hormones or lack of sleep. Some experts believe the emotional angst during menopause is mostly due to other life changes women go through during midlife, such as juggling raising children, caring for parents and having a career. Exercise and stress-reduction techniques may help you keep your balance. Ask your doctor before you increase your activity level.
8) Skin changes
A decrease in estrogen will cause skin to thin and lose elasticity. Drink plenty of water, protect your skin from the sun, get enough sleep and don't smoke.
Hormonal changes may bring on headaches. If you have a history of migraines, they may improve or get worse during perimenopause. Call your doctor if your headache pattern changes or if your headaches become worse in any way. Call 9-1-1 right away if your have a sudden, intense headache or if your headache is accompanied by vision changes, numbness, weakness, confusion, dizziness, loss of consciousness or trouble with balance or walking.
Some women experience tiredness, memory loss, depression and anxiety at this stage in their life. But studies show these are not direct symptoms of menopause. Instead they are likely a result of hot flashes and lack of sleep.
Regular exercise may reduce the intensity of hot flashes, help you sleep better and improve your mood. It can also increase bone density and lower your risk for heart disease. Ask your doctor first before you increase your activity level.
Talk to your doctor if you're having trouble coping, trouble sleeping or if your interest in sex concerns you. Your doctor can suggest more ways to relieve other menopause symptoms.