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What IS Menopause?

Menopause Oasis
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Technically, menopause is a "point in time" at which you have been without a period for one full year. This usually takes place between the ages of 46 and 53 with the average age being 51. The (up to 15) years prior to that, while the body is winding down its production of the female sex hormones, is peri-menopause. (We liken it to puberty in reverse!) The years following are post-menopause.      We all do seem to lump all three phases into the term "menopause" though!

So 'technically' what we are talking about here is peri-menopause with a bit about post-menopause included!!

My doctor did an FSH test and says that I am menopausal....

That test indicated only that your FSH (Folicle Stimulating Hormone) was at what is considered a "menopausal level" at the precise moment that the blood used for the test was drawn. One hour later (or earlier) it could have been totally different!

Please understand that the term "menopausal" is often used, even by doctors, to indicate any of the years which should be termed peri-menopausal or post-menopausal. It is merely a misnomer!

So, even if your FSH levels indicate that you are "menopausal", if you have not passed that one-year-mark ~ you ain't there yet!!

Please be aware that you can still ovulate and possibly become pregnant for at least one (and some doctors say two) years past that point in time! So you need to continue to use some form of birth control if you wish to not become pregnant!!

There is an excellent article titled "Talking to your doctor about menopause", written by Dixie Mills, MD that can help you if you need to make that first appointment with your doctor or find a new one! It is a lengthy article or I would try to include the information here. So follow this link to read it.

How Does It Happen Naturally?

The National Institute on Aging gives us this explanation.....

The ovaries contain structures called follicles that hold the egg cells. You are born with about 500,000 egg cells and by puberty there are about 75,000 left. Only about 400 to 500 ever mature fully to be released during the menstrual cycle. The rest degenerate over the years. During the reproductive years, a gland in the brain generates hormones that cause a new egg to be released from its follicle each month. The follicle then produces the sex hormones estrogen and progesterone, which thicken the lining of the uterus. This enriched lining is prepared to receive and nourish a fertilized egg which could develop into a baby. If fertilization does not occur, estrogen and progesterone levels drop, the lining of the uterus breaks down, and menstruation occurs.

For unknown reasons, the ovaries begin to decline in hormone production during the mid-thirties. In the late forties, the process accelerates and hormones fluctuate more, causing irregular menstrual cycles and unpredictable episodes of heavy bleeding. By the early to mid-fifties, periods finally end altogether. However, estrogen production does not completely stop. The ovaries decrease their output significantly, but still may produce a small amount. Also, some estrogen is produced in fat cells with help from the adrenal glands (near the kidney).

Progesterone, the other female hormone, works during the second half of the menstrual cycle to create a lining in the uterus as a viable home for an egg, and to shed the lining if the egg is not fertilized. If you skip a period, your body may not be making enough progesterone to break down the uterine lining. However, your estrogen levels may remain high even though you are not menstruating.

At menopause, hormone levels don't always decline uniformly. They alternately rise and fall again. Changing ovarian hormone levels affect the other glands in the body, which together make up the endocrine system. The endocrine system controls growth, metabolism and reproduction. This system must constantly readjust itself to work effectively. Ovarian hormones also affect all other tissues, including the breasts, vagina, bones, blood vessels, gastrointestinal tract, urinary tract, and skin.

What, besides nature, can bring a woman to menopause?

Surgical menopause.
This involves an operation to remove the uterus (hysterectomy). Such surgery is often necessary to treat conditions such as a gynecologic cancer or endometriosis. The symptoms are most likely to appear immediately after surgery, rather than occurring gradually as they do in natural menopause. In some instances (but not all) symptoms may be more severe, at least at first, after surgical menopause.

Sometimes when a woman has a hysterectomy she does not have her ovaries removed (an oophorectomy). Although these women are no longer able to bear children and do not menstruate, they might not experience premature menopause, as their ovaries can continue to produce hormones. However, some of these women will experience menopausal symptoms, as the surgery may disrupt the blood supply to the ovaries and cause them to fail (if only temporarily). In addition, women who have had only their uterus removed may experience menopausal symptoms a year or two earlier than expected, and are at higher risk for osteoporosis.

Any kind of abdominal surgery can trigger temporary peri-menopausal symptoms. The ovaries can be easily thrown off hormone production if the space in your body they think of as "theirs" is disturbed! This is usually not a long lasting situation.

Premature Ovarian Failure
If a woman reaches menopause prior to the age of 40, and not due to surgery, it is often classed as POF (Premature Ovarian Failure).

The causes of POF can be:

  • Genetics. The age at which a woman enters menopause often corresponds closely with that of her mother.
  • Cancer treatments. Chemotherapy or radiation to the pelvic area can damage the ovaries, triggering POF. The younger a woman is when she has these treatments, the less likely she is to experience premature menopause.
  • Smoking. Tobacco use may cause menopause to occur up to two years earlier than normal.
  • Chromosome defects. For example, women born without a second X chromosome, or born without part of the chromosome have a condition known as Turner syndrome. In this disorder, the ovaries do not form normally, which leads to early menopause.
  • Autoimmune diseases. The body’s immune system sometimes mistakenly attacks part of the reproductive system, damaging ovaries and preventing them from producing female hormones. Examples of diseases that can cause these symptoms include thyroid disease and rheumatoid arthritis.

Comments from our personal observations:

Peri-menopause can bring with it many symptoms (see the list of symptoms on our front page) but we must remember that many of these same symptoms can be caused by other physical conditions and some of them much more serious than menopause. Please seek professional help to determine just what is causing the symptoms you are experiencing. It makes things easier to deal with when you know what is causing you to feel the way you do.

There are many women who breeze through this time of life with few, if any, symptoms. Unfortunately most of us are not that lucky. However, the majority of us do not experience all of the possible symptoms, thank goodness. Some few probably do.

Usually the first symptoms we notice are the ever-shifting menstrual period patterns - more often, less often, heavier flow, lighter flow, missed periods. These come in any order they choose too!

Right on the heels of that, or very often right along with it, are the fluctuating mood swings - every thing from feeling a bit more weepy than usual to outright rage at the simplest things. Some women experience feelings of total anxiety and panic, some deep feelings of ‘doom & gloom’. Many wonder, "Am I going crazy?", our answer is, "No! As strange as these feeling are to you, they are normal."

Do not expect that you will be able to predict which menopausal symptoms will come along or in which order they will arrive or how long any of them will stay! They can and often do play switcheroo on us! Some few of the symptoms do seem to come along later rather than sooner - those being the extreme vaginal dryness and the bladder control problems and recurrent urinary tract infections. But again, they can happen at any time!

One thing that is very important that you understand is that you can get pregnant still.  In fact you can get pregnant for at least one full year (some doctors say up to two) *after* you have reached menopause!  So take precautions if you are sexually active and do not wish to become pregnant.

The thing we stress most is that you seek medical help. Do not think that if you ignore the symptoms they will go away. If you cannot afford to see a doctor, or choose not to, then talk with your trusted pharmacist, or visit our 'Natural Remedies' page to see if you can find something there that can help you. We do provide links to other extremely informative websites where you can find information that is much to extensive for us to include here. Come to our message board and ask questions, or vent (hey, it does help!) or share your experiences with us - we’d love to meet you!

There are some physical (laboratory) tests that your doctor can run to help determine if you are entering peri-menopause.  For a list of these tests and an explanation of the results please check out this link.

 
We have often commented that God must have some strange sense of humor to put a mother into peri-menopause at the same time her kids are going through puberty....especially if her kid is a girl!  Talk about the battle of raging hormones!!
 
Perhaps our teens, who often are accused of being cranky, sulky and generally uncommunicative (holding the entire family hostage by their hot & cold tempers) are thinking the exact same thing applies to their mother!  You have heard the saying, "If Momma ain't happy, ain't nobody happy."!  Well this is true, but we can do something about it - we can talk to them about what is causing these ever-changing moods and ask for their help.
 
Many children (and husbands) have absolutely no clue what menopause means. So a wee bit of information may be just what is in order! It could help them all realize that menopause is not a scary, gross, or taboo subject, but a transition - not just for Mom, but for the entire family.
 
Many of us grew up living with hormonal taboos - no talking about the subject allowed!!  We can break that taboo. Our families generally understand that adolescents go through hormonal fluctuations, now we can explain that this isn't something that just happens to teens - but to adult women and men as well. Every human being has hormones - and they fluctuate!
 
You can help them understand that just as when their adolescent years are over they will have blossomed into someone different so you will too when your peri-menopausal year are behind you. That many women discover a newfound sense of freedom and 'groundedness' when they’ve passed the menopause milestone. You can let them know that you are on a journey, just as they are.
 
Approach the subject with humor - tell them our comment about 'reverse puberty' - they'll probably understand the comparrison! You can let your kids know that just in the same way they feel bursts of happiness or sadness or excitement, and in the same way they beg to 'sleep in' for a few extra hours of rest, you might also have these kinds of mood swings and fatigue. Do be careful to not give too many of the 'gory details' - especially to sons!
 
Do make your needs crystal clear! Be specific about ways your kids can help you.  Ask them to be more considerate of what you would like to have less of: the back-talk or whining or whatever else pushes your buttons. It doesn’t mean you’ll get it, but it shows them specifically where the limits of your patience might lie.  Tell them that you may need uninterrupted time to yourself, and that they should learn to avoid making demands on your time when you’re out of sorts. Try to establish a some signals that will let them know when Mom needs a 'time out.'  Something like saying "just give me a few minutes" might be just what is needed.
 
I read this and feel I should share it with you about one woman who had a great strategy.  Whenever she was at a breaking point, she proclaimed to her family that instead of having a cow, she was about to have a moose. When her three teenagers attempted to say anything thereafter, she simply threw back her head and yelled “Moooooose!” at the top of her lungs in falsetto until her kids got the hint. It made them laugh, but it also made them give her space.
 
Try to begin and end your conversation on an up note. They should walk away feeling as though they’ve learned more about you, and feeling glad that you cared enough to share your experience with them — even if they say they don’t want to hear it. Most of all, they should feel that they know what to expect from you and how to respond to it...that if you’re being grouchy, they shouldn’t 'test' you, but that your grouchiness really is not their fault!
 
It’s important for our families to know that even though all women experience menopause, it is different for each of us. You can reassure them that menopause is not a disease, and that much of the time you’ll be fine; but also that it is not going to be gone in a few days. A woman’s perimenopause can last for many years, so you can ask them to be a little gentler, a little extra patient and in return, you can reassure them that you will be honest about how you feel.