What is the Menopause?
The menopause is the exact point in your life when you have stopped having periods for a total of 12 months.
This usually happens between the ages of 45 and 55. The average age in the UK is 51. This is caused by changes in your hormone levels. When your body is at its most fertile, oestrogen and progesterone keep your periods and production of eggs regular. As you get older, you can’t store as many eggs in your ovaries and you might find it harder to conceive. That is because your body is producing less and less oestrogen. This gradual process is called perimenopause.
This journey is a natural process that every woman will eventually go through. Some of you may have quite a difficult experience while others may sail through it. Your experience will greatly depend on a number of things including body type, family history and lifestyle. There are 34 common symptoms of menopause, which include hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and fatigue, and are typically due to the natural decline in oestrogen. Fortunately, all symptoms are manageable through lifestyle and diet changes, as well as natural and medical treatments.
Early and Premature Menopause
Some women (around 1 in 100) may experience the menopause in their 30s or 40s or even younger. We call this early menopause if you are under 45 or premature menopause if you are younger than 40. This means that your body stops producing hormones before it is meant to.
It is not always possible to understand why this happens but it can be caused by enzyme deficiencies or autoimmune diseases that affect hormone production in your body. It can also be caused by some cancer treatments including radiotherapy and chemotherapy and surgical procedures such as a hysterectomy.
If you are suffering through early or premature menopause, you can contact The Daisy Network, a registered charity dedicated to providing information and support. From providing a network of women to talk to, to supplying you with information and research on Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) and other ways to manage long-term health, The Daisy Network is an incredible source for women going through early or premature menopause.
Perimenopause happens before the menopause and it usually lasts a number of years (the average is four, but can last up to 10 years). It often begins in your 40s but can happen earlier or later. As with most aspects of the menopause, the age it happens to you is down to a variety of individual factors and so there is no set rule. Some of you – particularly if you’re in your 30s or 40s – may put your symptoms down to stress or other life events without realising you are actually perimenopausal. Many women don’t know (as I didn’t) that there is a difference between perimenopause and menopause.
In the first few years of perimenopause, oestrogen levels fluctuate, which can lead to a variety of physical and emotional symptoms. One of the biggest symptoms of perimenopause is irregular periods, where your menstrual cycles may lengthen or shorten, or become overall more erratic. Since perimenopause is a new change in women’s lives, you may attribute symptoms of perimenopause (like increased anxiety and mood swings) to other factors in your life that may cause stress.
During the final two years of perimenopause, your oestrogen production slows down rapidly. It is at this stage that many women start to experience symptoms of the menopause, like hot flushes and fatigue. Perimenopause ends at the start of menopause when the ovary stops producing eggs and so during perimenopause, you can still become pregnant.
If you have not had a period for 12 months, you are post-menopausal and your symptoms might gradually decrease with time. Postmenopause is a permanent state following menopause that lasts the rest of your life. In fact, symptoms of postmenopause vary from woman to woman. Some women feel a renewal of energy, while others continue to have menopausal symptoms like hot flushes and night sweats. It’s normal to feel changes in the body as a result of oestrogen levels dropping.
It is important that you make time for regular health checks as postmenopausal women are at increased risk of a number of health conditions such as osteoporosis and heart disease due to reduced estrogen production. Your risk depends on factors such as your medical and family history. Fortunately, you can manage these risks with a healthy lifestyle and diet (including regular exercise and vitamin intake), and regular visits to your GP.
We talk about surgical menopause when surgery, rather than the natural ageing process, causes a woman to go through menopause.
Surgical menopause occurs after an oophorectomy, a surgery that removes the ovaries. Usually, menopause occurs when a woman hasn’t had a period for 12 months or even longer. If in the “natural” menopause your hormones decrease their production in a certain amount of time, in surgical menopause this is a sudden change. In fact, the ovaries are the main source of oestrogen production in the female body. Their removal triggers immediate menopause, despite the age of the person having surgery.
Surgical menopause also causes hormonal imbalances. The ovaries and adrenal glands produce both progesterone and oestrogen, basically the female sex hormones. If both ovaries are removed, the adrenal glands are the only thing producing hormones, and this is not enough to maintain balance. You can experience all the symptoms related to menopause.
Another reason why women usually choose to undergo surgical menopause is that it can also help to reduce pain from endometriosis. Endometriosis is a condition causing uterine tissues to growth outside the uterus. This irregular tissue misplaced, can affect the ovaries, fallopian tubes, or lymph nodes and cause significant pelvic pain. Some women find pain relief in removing their ovaries.
Premature Ovarian Insufficiency
Premature ovarian insufficiency, also known as premature ovarian failure, happens when women ovaries stop working before the age of 40. It is normal to experience reduced fertility and irregular periods around the age of 40. If a woman experiences those symptoms before the age of 40, this is called premature menopause. Sometimes it can even happen in the teenage years.
POI is different from premature menopause. With premature menopause, your periods stop before age 40. At this point, you can no longer get pregnant. The cause can be natural, or it can be a disease, surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation. With POI instead, some women can still have occasional periods. They may even get pregnant. In most cases of POI, the underlying cause is unknown.
Many research shows that POI is usually related to problems with the follicles. Follicles are defined as small “sacs” in your ovaries. Your eggs grow and mature inside them. One type of follicle-related problem is that you run out (they basically finish) of working follicles earlier than normal. Another problem is that the follicles are not working as they should. In most cases though, the cause underlying the follicle problem remains unknown.