When I was a girl, menopause was part and parcel of ‘the change’. My parental grandfather had many sisters (my great aunts) most of whom were still alive until I was well into my twenties. The change was alluded to by them in soft voices and quite innuendoes, to me it was another dark and mysterious secret of womanhood. Later I learned about menopause as a time around 55 or 56 ( the average is actually 52 give or take four years) when a grown woman would stop having periods and no longer be able to have babies.
It is only in my personal experience that I have had a curiosity to gain a greater understanding of this next rite of passage which I have experienced. Menopause itself is an event which happens during an approximate 15 year span known as the climacteric. The climacteric has been defined as the physical and emotional transition from middle to old age. It is experienced by both men and women with menopause being the unique womanly signal of this stage of life.
Menopause is a fairly recent phenomenon in the course of human history. As recently as 1900, life expectancy was about 46. Since the average age of the last period is 52, few women lived to experience it. How things have changed. Now a woman born in 2002 can expect to live into her late eighties. This means that most women will live about one third of their lives after the menopause.
In this society which has just begun to recognise the value of the ‘older woman’, it would seem that to-day’s two year old girls will have the opportunity to demonstrate en masse the remarkable inner strength wisdom and harmony of which the older woman is capable.
If we understand the changes we can expect during this time, we can use that information to help us put menopause and the climacteric in perspective in our own lives. Initially it is important to recognise that there is no single consistent picture of menopause. Each of us experiences it differently. The work comes from the Greek,’ men’; meaning month and ‘pausis’ meaning to end. Before the end actually comes, many women experience erratic cycles for as long as two or three years. The period may disappear for months only to reappear. Sources vary in regard to the actual end. Some say a year without a period is the final sign while others report that some women go on as long as a year without a period than experience several more cycles before the actual termination, On the other hand, some women just stop having periods rather abruptly . If you don’t want to risk getting pregnant, it would be prudent to use birth control for 15-18 months past your last period.
We stop having our periods simply because we run out of eggs. Essentially there are no more ova left for ovulating. (The ovaries and thymus are the only organs that cease to function while we are still living). At the age of 40 about 75 per cent of us will be ovulating fairly regularly. After 45 that figure decreases to 65 percent. With the cessation of ovulation there is a dramatic change in the interplay of our sex hormones. This hormonal shift is accompanied by many physical and emotional changes known as the menopause.
The hot flush is the most common menopausal symptom. A flush of intense heat will suddenly sweep through the upper half of the body, causing the face to turn red as well as bringing profuse sweating and sometimes feelings of suffocation. The number of hot flushes in a day for a particular woman can range from one or two to as many as a dozen. Each flush is the rapid changes in the diameter of the blood vessels. This is thought to be due to erratic changes in hormone output.
Other classical symptoms are sensations of cold in the hands and feet, dizziness or faintness, headaches, backaches or increased interest in sex, irritability, depression, insomnia (these last three are also calcium deficiency symptoms) disturbances in calcium and zinc metabolism, constipation and increase in weight.
The tendency to gain weight is thought to be due to the cessation of ovulation, a process which uses up to 300 extra calories daily during the first ten days to two weeks of the ovulating women’s cycle. The shape of the body may also change at this time – loss of fat around the hips, thighs, breasts with gain in the waistline, ribcage and back. There is also decreased elasticity of the tissues which is especially noticeable in the breasts and upper arms.
Hormonal changes will also affect the vagina. There may be itching and dryness plus the usual acidic vaginal secretions becoming less acidic, increasing the possibility of vaginal infections and vaginal discharge. The vagina may decrease in length and width and inner labia of the vulva become smaller, thinner and less elastic. Bladder and urethral tissues may become dry and irritated, this can result in urinary burning or leaking. Other women have reported bouts of depression.
One of the most troublesome changes of menopause for some women can be the incidence of high blood pressure. The chances of getting high blood pressure goes up considerably after menopause. Following the menopause the ovaries continue to produce a reduced amount of oestrogen. However at that time the adrenals begin to form a type of female hormone which is used along with the minute amount of ovarian oestrogen. About 25 percent of women will produce enough of this hormone combination to be almost unaware of body changes. Since progesterone is also found in the blood of postmenopausal women and since it is not produced by the ovaries, it is thought that it is likewise from the adrenals. Consequently it follows that women who are over stressed and suffering from adrenal exhaustion will have a particularly difficult time after menopause.
Many women who are having particularly unpleasant symptoms during the menopause try oestrogen replacement therapy. Although this treatment will alleviate hot flushes, sensations of impending doom, night sweats and exaggerated anxiety states and aid in calcium retention for the prevention of post-menopausal osteoporosis, they have also been strongly implicated as causative agents in cancer of the uterus. It seems that a progesterone/oestrogen combination lowers the risk. However HRT should not be taken by women who have had breast cancer, blood clots or undiagnosed vaginal bleeding and only used with extreme caution by women who are diabetic or epileptic or have breast cysts, heart disease, asthma, kidney problems or migraine. Later studies may prove HRT to be both safe and effective, however it does have one drawback, it restarts the menstrual cycle.
Vitamin and mineral supplements will help you through the menopause. Vitamin A B2 pantothenic acid, E and C are recommended. Ginseng is also reported to aid the adrenal function. Evening primrose oil has been reported to be of benefit.