Symptoms and treatment
Menopause is a time of significant changes in a woman's body. The ovaries have stopped functioning, estrogen levels have dropped and the monthly cycle has stopped. In trying to adjust, the body may exhibit some bothersome symptoms.
The most common of these are:
- Hot flashes. Hot flashes are the most frequent and usually the most bothersome symptom. They are a feeling of heat, accompanied by a flushed face and sweating. They happen when blood vessels at the skin's surface dilate to dissipate heat, but we still don't know exactly why.
- Night sweats. Night sweats are hot flashes that happen at night as you try to sleep.
- Painful intercourse. Low estrogen levels in the body during menopause lead to lower libido and less lubrication to the vagina. Insufficient lubrication can cause pain during sex.
- Sleep disorders. Night sweats can make it hard to get a good night's sleep, leading to daytime sleepiness. Napping during the day then disrupts the sleep cycle, making it even harder to sleep.
- Anxiety / irritability. Altered hormone levels and lack of sleep cause an inability to control emotions.
Not every woman has all these symptoms, and the severity of symptoms differs for every woman too. For mild symptoms, consider lifestyle changes before trying drugs or hormones. These can include:
- Control stress. Stress can make hot flashes worse. Try relaxation techniques like mindful breathing or yoga.
- Exercise. Exercise has two benefits. It helps keep the body healthy and also reduces stress for a healthy mind.
- Avoid food triggers. Known hot flash triggers are spicy foods, alcohol and caffeine. Not all women have the same triggers. Identify yours and limit the amount you eat.
- Lubricants. Using a water-based lubricant like Astroglide or K-Y Jelly can make sex more comfortable.
- Don't smoke. Smoking is associated with increased hot flashes and contributes to weak bones.
- Wear loose layers. Tight clothing can trap heat. Also, you can remove layers when you start to feel warm.
- Environmental control. Keep the bedroom cool at night to minimize night sweats.
Some women report relief using herbs like black cohosh or ginseng. There are no scientific studies to support this, but they may be safe in moderation.
More severe symptoms might require medication. Don't be afraid to try hormone replacement therapy (HRT) if your symptoms are disrupting daily life. Short-term HRT can help lessen vaginal dryness, mood disorders and hot flashes. It does increase the risk of heart disease, some cancers, blood clots and stroke, but using the lowest effective dose for the shortest period of time reduces the risks.
Some drugs not normally associated with menopause may also help. Antidepressants can reduce mood swings. Gabapentin, commonly used for seizures and nerve pain, might reduce hot flashes (and in the process improve sleep and mood). Some women find relief with other hormones like the birth control pill.
Always work with your doctor to customize a treatment plan that works for you.
By Melissa J. Luther
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