What is Menopause?
What is menopause? Well, as women, we all go through it. Remember how it all began? The “your little friend will pay you a monthly visit” conversation?” (Ugh!)
Wiser after three decades, your body, mind and spirit are in a different place. Let’s be honest, we were clueless teenagers. OK, so your first periods were pretty intense as well. (Seriously, do I have to go to gym class when I’m having my period?!) Or worse yet, if you get the chance to ask your mom now, what is menopause, is she one of those who laughs and says, “Oh that? I hardly noticed.” (I think they forget, kind of like the pain of childbirth!)
Grab my FREE ebook to learn how lifestyle choices can balance your hormones and help with perimenopause and menopause.
Rhonda Jolliffe NP, MSN, FNP-BC, CTNC
A New Beginning?
Menopause is where you transition from the child-bearing years into permanent infertility. Although that sounds somewhat daunting, it is a natural progression. It brings on new beginnings that aren’t negative as the term seems to imply in our society today. More on this topic later.
Back to the more complex things I mentioned at the beginning. Menopause has stages which are subtle and can be different from woman to woman. Perimenopause defined as “around” menopause, is a stage. Menopausal symptoms usually begin at this point. Symptoms usually include changes in the menstrual cycle. You may know what I’m talking about. For instance, you go a month without your period or you may have period back-to-back.
This stage can start at any time, but is most common in your 40’s. Premature or early menopause is the cessation of menses (your period) before to age 40. This early menopause is a little uncommon but not worrisome because everyone is unique.
How long is this going to take?
The official definition of Menopause is 1 year without a menses (period). You may have a little spotting until this time. But menopause is official for you when your periods end, done, o-v-e-r. (You may even want to throw a party.)
Many women wonder “When am I done with menopause?” The answer is that it is different for everyone. Some women experience minor symptoms for a short time and others experience symptoms into their 80’s and beyond.
It is interesting, many women think that hot flashes are the only symptoms of menopause. If they do not experience these hellfire moments they feel somehow lucky. They’ve escaped the horrible things that their girlfriends are talking about. But, these same women suffer and receive treatment for insomnia, depression and anxiety. Accompanying medications mask the cause of these symptoms.
That cause is a lack of hormones.
Menopause is about hormones and glands.
Let’s meet them – estrogen, progesterone, adrenal, thyroid, pituitary and thymus.
The hormone that changes the most at menopause is Estrogen. In the perimenopause phase, surges occur. Rushes of estrogen release resulting in periods of low estrogen.
This extreme variation causes so many of the symptoms.
Progesterone decreases gradually starting around age 35 in most women. Estrogen yet can remain at high levels even at age 55. The average age of menopause is age 51.
The biggest issue of concern at menopause is the “balance” of the hormones. Menopause affects the entire endocrine system. As a closely linked system, the endocrine system involves all your hormones.
Endocrine glands secrete each of these hormones. During menopause, the ovaries start to fail. This failure is a natural progression. The other glands need to kick it into gear to maintain your balance. The Adrenal glands (those kicking into gear) now secrete the estrogen and progesterone. Think how important those glands are now at menopause!! Their role is critical.
The other gland that takes a hit is the Thyroid. It is not uncommon for a women’s thyroid to go haywire now. It is important to have your thyroid checked. Many menopausal symptoms benefit from the support of treating your thyroid.
Remember what I said about those Adrenal glands? They are the glands that secrete estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. They work after your ovaries say goodbye. That means they are pretty important at this point. Unhealthy Adrenal Glands at the beginning of menopause may cause more struggle.
This part is important. The main hormones that come from the Adrenal glands are Adrenaline and Cortisol. Without these indispensable hormones, you will die. Adrenaline and Cortisol sustain life.
The pancreas is the gland that secrets the hormone insulin. Insulin’s job in the body is to regulate the blood sugar in our blood. It’s a pretty big job. Insulin is another life-sustaining hormone, in that if you do not have enough, you will die. (I’m sensing a theme here…) For this reason, insulin-dependent diabetics need their insulin daily. Insulin plays a major role in your balance and you need to pay attention.
Now, to the Big Momma. The pituitary gland is often referred to as the Master Gland. It secretes many hormones that influence all your cells and physiological processes. The powerhouse behind the pituitary gland is the hypothalamus. (OK, stay with me here.) The neuro-secretory neurons secrete the hormones that regulate the secretion from the anterior pituitary. Aptly named, they are releasing and inhibiting hormones.
At the risk of getting confusing, just understand that these glands all work together. In a tight web of messages, they communicate from one gland to the other. It’s like when your girlfriends get what you need during a bad breakup. Or when you have the most amazing group support when your boss is a jerk.
When one gland is not functioning, the others take note and kick in a bit harder to maintain your balance. So, can you see what is happening? As your ovaries start to fail, other symptoms relate back to these glands. They fill in and attempt to maintain balance.
OK, one more gland to review with you.
Often forgotten, but still pretty key in the gland support system is the Thymus gland. The Thymus gland tends to go unnoticed as an endocrine gland and is more a part of the immune system. But, it is glandular tissue.
The thymus plays a vital role in the development of T-cells. T-cells, a type of white blood cell defends the body against pathogens. It fights bacteria, viruses, and fungi. It is no wonder that during your menopause changes the immune system takes a hit as well. It is important to support your immune system through the transition. You have the control.
What about your eggs?
So how about those Ovaries?
The ovaries are a pair of ova-producing organs (that is, they produce egg cells). They maintain the health of your female reproductive system. The ovaries, like their male counterpart, the testes, are gonads. This term means they are the primary reproductive organs.
Besides, producing ova, ovaries also have the distinction of being an endocrine gland. They secrete hormones—primarily estrogen and progesterone. These hormones are vital to normal reproductive development and fertility. Nice multi-tasking!
At menopause, as the ovaries fail they do not secrete enough progesterone and estrogen. (Remember, it’s natural.) Without these hormones, there is no egg production. And, you lose the ability to maintain your menstrual cycle. Thus, you are now infertile.
Bummer?? Well maybe not.
Would you really want to have any babies anymore? If you raised your kids already – let them have the babies, as I hear it is better being a grandma anyway!!
Well, your ovaries are gone, say goodbye and have a ceremony if you wish. From here on out, you need to take care of all the other hormones to maintain balance.
What’s next? Control + Focus = Balance
It’s clear. Your focus for the rest of your life should be on the following things. Thyroid, those adrenal glands, the pancreas and that thymus. But, you know the really cool part of all this menopause stuff? You are in control. Take charge of the things you can control – lifestyle and attitude being the biggest. Live the life you want to live. Understanding, “What is Menopause” is the beginning of taking control of your balance.
Welcome to Menopause – you got this!
Symptoms of menopause and perimenopause
Perimenopausal symptoms can be the same as menopause and may include a few or all these symptoms:
• Menstrual changes and irregularities
• Hot flashes
• Night sweats
• Mood swings
• Low libido (sex-drive),
• Low motivation and focus
• Memory changes and “brain fog”
• Hair loss
• Unexplained weight gain
• Vaginal irritation and dryness
• Bladder irritation
• (Oh, wow, we’re having fun now!)
I get what you are going through. Until I went through menopause myself, I didn’t understand the suffering of my patients. Let’s just say, although I’ve cared deeply about my patients, I “really get it” now.