I can recall my mothers' hot flashes, sleepless nights, or unexpected mood swings ,sagging skin, and wrinkles -- with apprehension. One women told me that her mother always told her that the best years of her life started after menopause, and therefore she looked forward to the change. Another told me that her mother always said that this is the worst thing that can ever happen to you and she was terrified of what lied ahead. Either way, your mother's menopause isn't always a predictor of what your experience will be. It's not all hereditary, and there are a few things you can do to make your own transition easier.
Predicting the future Menopause is defined as the point in a woman's life when she has stopped menstruating for at least a year. The period of time leading up to menopause is called perimenopause, during which women undergo some pretty drastic hormonal changes and may have irregular periods. Most women start perimenopause somewhere between ages 39 and 51. It generally takes around five years from the start of perimenopause for a woman to stop menstruating. Genetic factors play a role in this timing: If your mother and other close relatives had an early or late menopause, you probably will too. But your environment and lifestyle choices will play a role as well. For example, you might have an earlier menopause if you smoke, or if you live at a high altitude. A number of healthy daily habits may help you avoid some of the worst parts, although the research behind how and why lifestyle changes affect menopause isn't definitive.
Exercise Regular exercise -- at least 30 minutes a day, three times a week -- can reduce menopause symptoms. A 2006 study found that even a twice-weekly exercise program decreased severe symptoms in one-quarter of women, while the symptoms of those who did not take part in the exercise program worsened.
Diet Simply changing up your diet may also soothe some of your symptoms. Anything that raises blood sugar, including chocolates and sweets, can interact with stress hormones and rapidly fluctuating estrogen levels to make symptoms like hot flashes worse, says Northrup. She suggests eliminating foods packed with sugar, as well as alcohol and caffeine, which may also trigger hot flashes. While there are confusing and contradictory reports about soy, edamame or tofu -- eaten in moderation -- can reduce hot flashes and boost heart and bone health, according to recent research.
Supplements Some herbs, like dong quai and flax, also contain natural hormones, says Northrup. These and other natural menopause remedies can help cut down on symptoms because they protect us from over-stimulation by the rapidly changing levels of estrogen during menopause. However, the jury is still out when it comes to most supplements. Recent reviews of black cohosh, dong quai, evening primrose oil, and red clover found that more evidence is needed to confirm their effects.
Relax and Unwind During menopause the body produces less estrogen and progesterone, which can play a role in shortening your fuse and keeping you awake at night. In addition, being in stressful situations can make those hormone fluctuations even worse. Finding a few minutes to relax and unwind can help combat these mood changes. Meditation may help you sleep through the night and relax . Hormone replacement therapy and natural sleep remedies such as valerian can also help.
Use it or lose it Cognitive changes are common with age, but a 2009 study found that memory and learning take a direct hit leading up to menopause. The fluctuations in hormone levels during perimenopause seem to affect memory. Starting hormone replacement therapy (estrogen or progesterone) before the last period may help balance the levels needed for proper brain function, the study found. However, beginning therapy after the age of 60 or 65 may actually increase a woman's risk for dementia. Simply putting the brain to work may also help trigger the parts of the brain that falter during menopause. Take on a new challenge at work, learn a new language, or do a daily crossword puzzle. All these ideas put to use can make the menopause transition much easier despite what mama used to say.