Women have a reputation for taking care of others before we think about ourselves, but as you start to approach menopause or perimenopause, you might have symptoms that you can't — and shouldn't — ignore.
The good news is that many symptoms can be reduced with lifestyle changes that contribute to your overall health. Instead of dreading the next phase of life, think of it as another opportunity to take care of your body for the future.
Symptoms can begin as early as 10 years before menopause, during a period which is called perimenopause. Some women reach menopause, which occurs after a woman has gone a full year without menstruating, with very few symptoms while others are bothered by several of the following:
Irregular periods: Your ovaries begin producing less estrogen and progesterone, and because of this, often the first symptom you notice is that your periods have changed — becoming either heavier or lighter, longer or shorter. Often they become irregular, occurring every other month or every few months. It's important to make sure you're not pregnant when this happens the first time. (And even though periods may be irregular, you can still become pregnant.) The best way to cope with irregularity is to be prepared with sanitary products wherever you go.
Hot flashes: Common sense prevails here. Do whatever you would do on a hot day to keep yourself cool. Dress in layers so that you can remove clothing if you start to get hot and wear moisture wicking clothing. Drink cold beverages, and if possible, turn on a fan or open a window. Some women can identify their hot flash triggers — hot beverages, caffeine, alcohol, spicy foods, stress and hot weather are common culprits. If hot flashes are really a problem, speak with your health care provider about other options, including hormone replacement therapy. If hot flashes happen at night( sometimes known as night sweats), wear moisture wicking sleepwear and use temperature regulating sheets, cooling mattress pads and cool pillows to help make sleeping more comfortable.
Difficulty Sleeping: Make sure you're tired for bed by getting enough physical activity during the day. Give yourself time to wind down. Put your work away at least an hour before bedtime, and try to keep the electronic devices out of the bedroom. A cup of herbal tea also can help you relax, but avoid it if it brings on a hot flash!
Vaginal dryness: Shifting hormones can result in vaginal dryness and a loss of elasticity which in turn can lead to discomfort during intercourse. Water-based vaginal moisturizers and lubricants can help. Try to pick products without glycerin because it can cause burning and irritation for some women. If dryness is still a problem, talk with your health care provider about local estrogen treatments that are applied directly to the vagina in the form of a cream, tablet or ring.
Urine leakage: Hormonal changes can weaken the pelvic floor muscles. Remember the first time you laughed really hard after having given birth? Although urine leakage usually makes us stop laughing. Help prevent incontinence by strengthening your pelvic floor muscles with Kegel exercises.
Mood changes: Some women look forward to an end to menstruating and worrying about pregnancy, while other women mourn the loss of their fertility. Hormonal changes and a woman's perception about what menopause means can bring on anxiety and depression. Talk with your health care provider about whether an antidepressant could be helpful for you.
Get healthy now: A healthy lifestyle can help you manage many of these symptoms. Eat healthy, exercise, get enough sleep, avoid tobacco and avoid or reduce your intake of alcohol and caffeine. Keep track of your symptoms so you can share them with your health care provider, and remember there is no such thing as a silly question when it comes to menopause (or our bodies in general). If you are going through climacteric symptoms, contact your PCP or gynecologist to discuss your experience and symptoms.
The good news in all of this is that physical and emotional symptoms while approaching menopause are temporary, even though they may not seem like it while you're in the thick of it.
Like any potentially stressful situation, you might get some relief by taking a moment to breathe. Try a few minutes of deep breathing, a luxurious massage, or a yoga class when you need to relax.
Also, never underestimate the power of your support system. Sometimes the best way to get over a hot flash is to laugh about it with a girlfriend over a cup of coffee. A cup of iced, decaf coffee, that is.