What is Menopause?

When you were younger, you may have heard your mother, grandmother, or aunts quietly complaining about it. Now, you may find that your friends are talking about it, you coworkers are going through it, and you are worrying about it. Often referred to with horror as “The Change,” menopause is a scary thing to have to face. Even scarier though, is having to face this time of life without knowing the facts. What exactly is menopause? What can you expect during this time? What are the symptoms of menopause? Not to fear – menopause doesn’t have to be frightening when you know the details.

Causes of Menopause
Very basically, menopause is the time in your life when you no longer get your period. Your body has a finite number of eggs in your ovaries and, eventually, no more eggs will be released from your ovaries for fertilization. As you age, the female hormones that regulate your ovulation and menstruation begin to decline. Both estrogen and progesterone are responsible for signaling to your body when it is time to ovulate and menstruate. As these hormones decline, your ovulation and menstruation will become irregular, eventually stopping altogether. When you no longer get your period you have entered the menopausal phase of your life.

Menopause occurs at a different time in every woman. You are likely to go through menopause around the same time that your grandmother, mother, or sister did, give or take a few years. Most women stop menstruating completely between the ages of 50 and 51, however the whole menopausal process can last a number of years. Most North American women begin menopause sometime between the ages of 45 and 55 however, menopause can occur as early as 35 or as late as 60.

Usually, the body regulates menopause; this is called natural menopause. Some women enter menopause due to other reasons, though. Surgery and certain medications or treatments can force a woman’s body to enter menopause. Menopause after hysterectomies, radiation treatment, and chemotherapy has been known to occur. These treatments are also commonly responsible for menopause in younger women, or Premature Menopause (menopause before age 40). Damage to the ovaries or low levels of estrogen can also initiate early menopause.

Stages of Menopause
Menopause occurs in three major stages. The whole process of menopause can take 15 years or longer, depending on your age and family history. The first stage of menopause is known as perimenopause. The first signs of menopause are irregular periods and spotting due to fluctuating hormone levels in your body. Although it is still possible to get pregnant during perimenopause as eggs may be released from your ovaries, ovulation will probably be sporadic. Perimenopause can last anywhere from 2 to 5 years, but some women can remain in this stage of menopause for up to 15 years. Fluctuating hormone levels will probably cause some menopause symptoms like hot flashes, night sweats, and irritability.

The second stage of menopause occurs when your period no longer arrives. This stage is simply called menopause and usually occurs around age 50 or 51. In order to be in menopause, your period must be absent for at least 12 consecutive months. Gradually, your estrogen levels will decline and your body will stop producing progesterone. Signs of menopause and symptoms of this hormone decline include hot flashes, headaches, and mood swings.

The final stage of menopause is called postmenopause. Your menopause symptoms should begin to decrease during this time, freeing you of hot flashes and night sweats. However, you are at an increased risk for developing osteoporosis, heart disease, and urinary tract infections during this time.

Living Life after Menopause
Many women are anxious, worried and even scared about going through menopause. Yes, it can be difficult to stop menstruating and no longer be able to bear children. However, many women find menopause to be a happy and exciting time in their lives. You are no longer bound to periods and hormones and can live without the worry of pregnancy. Through education and acceptance, menopause can become one of the most enjoyable stages in your life.

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