by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP
Menopause is a time of life that many women dread. They hear horror stories about it’s symptoms, including weight gain, insomnia, mood swings, and vaginal dryness, all that can be quite bothersome. This is especially true for women experiencing early menopause. If you are between 40 and 45 and are beginning this life shift much sooner than you expected, you may be upset and concerned, and rightfully so.
But while menopause does create many challenges for women, there are also many remedies. When we pay attention to our symptoms, we have taken the first step in correcting them.
Signs of early menopause
In early menopause estrogen levels can rapidly decline causing symptoms to appear suddenly, feel severe, and last longer. Here are some telltale signs you are in early menopause.
- You are between the ages of 40-45
- You experienced an absence of periods for a full 12 months.
- You may be suffering from common symptoms including hot flashes, headaches, weight gain, depression, insomnia, mood swings, fuzzy thinking or fatigue.
For most women in early menopause, addressing the hormonal imbalance is the first step to finding relief from physical and even emotional symptoms.
Understanding the difference in types of menopause
There are many terms to describe the different stages of the menopause cycle, which makes it confusing for women who just want to understand why they are not feeling like themselves. These phases are all physiologically different, but the symptoms can feel similar.
Perimenopause is a transition easily confused with menopause that can last for several years. This phase presents similar symptoms to menopause that gradually increase, including fatigue, irritability, mood swings, and weight gain. The difference is that women in perimenopause continue to have periods, although they may be irregular. When you do not have a period for 12 months, you have entered menopause.
Early menopause occurs in women between the ages of 40 and 45, and occurs naturally, in other words, is not medically or surgically initiated.
Premature ovarian failure (POF) occurs when the ovaries slow or stop production of mature eggs and reproductive hormones before age 40. Between 5 and 10 percent of women diagnosed with POF actually go on become pregnant without any medical intervention.
Surgical menopause is a result of a hysterectomy, oophorectomy (removal of ovaries,) and other pelvic surgeries. Ablations, procedures to remove the lining of the uterus, can mimic menopause by stopping menstrual periods.
Medical menopause may occur after medical treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and during the course of various drug regimens. A common one is tamoxifen, used primarily to prevent the reoccurrence of breast cancer.
No matter what stage or type of menopause you may be experiencing, any abrupt change in your symptoms necessitates a visit to your health care provider. This is especially true if you think you are in early menopause or premature ovarian failure.
Possible cause of early menopause
When many of my patients learn they are in premature menopause they ask, “why me?” Symptoms often catch them by surprise, and they worry about what may have caused it, or what it means for their future. We don’t have all the answers about what causes early menopause, but we do know there are some definitive factors.
Genes: Women with a family history of premature menopause are 60 percent more likely to experience it themselves.
Also, events that occur in utero while a female’s ovaries are developing may result in a smaller number of egg-producing cells, which can then shorten a woman’s reproductive lifespan.
Environment: Toxins in our environment may be contributing to reproductive changes found in both women and men, although scientists have yet to uncover the exact causes.
Lifestyle: These factors are associated with early menopause
- Poor nutrition and poverty.
- Smoking increases your risk of early menopause by 30 percent.
- Alcohol may contribute to entering the phases of menopause at an earlier age, although not necessarily as “early menopause”.
- Medical treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation can initiate menopause earlier than usual.
Studies show that oral contraceptives however, may actually reduce your risk for early menopause.
Relief for the symptoms of early menopause
Our estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone levels are constantly shifting throughout our life, and that’s normal. But as we age, the fluctuations and ratios between these hormones can become more extreme. When the body cannot regulate these shifts in hormone levels, women can experience common symptoms of menopause, including night sweats, hot flashes, food cravings, and fatigue.
But by approaching these symptoms naturally, balance can be restored, and both the frequency and severity of symptoms will improve. Here’s how.
Nutrients provided by both a diet consisting of healthy, whole foods, along with nutritional supplements can help restore balance at the cellular level.
Herbal remedies can help balance the fluctuations in hormone levels. A functional medicine provider can work with you to determine exactly what herbs you need to help your specific imbalances.
Lifestyle changes including removing environmental toxins, getting proper sleep, and reducing chronic stress can help reduce the symptoms associated with early menopause.
All of these changes can effectively and proactively help you reduce your risk for diseases as well, especially of the heart and bones.
Health concerns with early menopause
Our sex hormones (estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone,) are beneficial in the years leading up to menopause, by offering protection against cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. To continue protecting against these health issues, talk with your healthcare practitioner about your risks, and consider adding the following steps to your daily routine.
Support your bones by adding more Vitamin D. This inexpensive supplement can help bones stay strong and resilient.
Tend to your heart. Studies show that women who go through menopause before age 46 are twice as likely to suffer from coronary artery disease or have a stroke. Proper nutrition, maintaining a healthy weight, and not smoking are the top three ways to help protect our hearts. But there are other ways to lower our risk for heart-related health conditions.
High quality omega-3 supplements can nourish our cardiovascular system.
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) may also be appropriate to address any long term health risks associated with early menopause.
Many women choose natural methods to support their bodies as they go through the stages of menopause, and beyond. If you work with a health practitioner and are committed to making appropriate long term adjustments, you can transition through menopause with relative ease, and keep it from impacting your overall health.
Emotional impact of early menopause
Menopause is certainly a milestone for most women. But the impact of early menopause can be quite dramatic. It can cause a shift in a younger woman’s sense of identity, making her feel powerless, and older than her age. Some women even feel they have lost their womanhood (a common feeling among many women going through menopause.)
The reality for women going through early menopause who chose to wait to become pregnant can be very painful. The path to motherhood is not always what we plan, but that does not mean we will never be mothers. I encourage my patients who are experiencing early menopause to seek additional emotional support if needed, to help work through some of the emotions associated with its arrival.
Menopause can be a time of reflection and insight. It does not prompt you to let go of the past, only to honor it and to shift the way you think about your life. When you have natural supports in place to relieve the physical symptoms of menopause, your emotional health will not suffer. In fact, you may actually welcome this change wholeheartedly, embracing the next phase of life.