Menopause is a natural change in a woman’s life. This occurs when a woman’s menstrual cycle stops for at least 12 months, and usually occurs between ages 45-55. The ovaries, which are responsible for producing eggs, stop making the hormones estrogen and progesterone. At this point, women are no longer fertile and able to become pregnant. Surgical removal of the ovaries, after chemotherapy, or after hormone treatment for certain types of breast cancer may also cause menopause.
There are several tests your doctor may perform to determine if you are in menopause. A follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinizing hormone (LH) and estrogen (estradiol) test may indicate a woman is undergoing menopause, as estrogen levels decrease and FSH and LH increase during this time. A thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) test may also be checked since hypothyroidism can sometimes mimic menopausal symptoms.
When estrogen and progesterone hormones decline during menopause, this causes symptoms including irregular periods, hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia, mood swings, and vaginal dryness. Weight gain is another common complaint. There are certain conditions that may occur due to the loss of estrogen. Osteoporosis, when the bones become weaker and are more likely to break, may develop. Heart disease is another important complication, as this condition makes it more likely to have a heart attack or stroke.
There are several therapies for menopausal symptoms and complications:
Hot flashes and night sweats: Sleep in a cool room and do not wear heavy clothing. Use a fan at night when you sleep. Drink cold water whenever you feel hot, and try to avoid caffeine, alcohol, and smoking. There are several prescription drugs that you can try including clonidine (a drug used for high blood pressure), gabapentin (a drug used for seizures), and low doses of antidepressants. Talk to your doctor about prescription drugs, as well as natural therapies such as black cohosh and phytoestrogens.
Vaginal dryness: This symptom can cause irritation and pain during sexual intercourse. Water-based lubricants can be used. Ask your doctor about prescription estrogen that be applied directly to the vagina in the form of a cream, tablet, or ring.
Osteoporosis: Your doctor may order a bone density test to check the health of your bones. If necessary, there are prescription drugs to help strengthen the bones, such as bisphosphonates. Make sure to eat foods that contain calcium. For example, milk, cheese, yogurt, and green leafy vegetables such as broccoli and collard greens contain calcium. Your body needs vitamin D to use calcium so take 800-1,000 International units (IU) of vitamin D everyday.
Heart disease: Heart disease is the number one cause of death for women. It leads to heart attacks or stroke. Talk to your doctor about ways you can prevent heart disease. Check your cholesterol, blood pressure, and risk for diabetes to help prevent heart disease. Exercise and a healthy diet are important for prevention.
Weight gain: Gaining weight can make you feel uncomfortable and it is bad for your health. To lose weight, watch the amount of food you eat, as well as the types of food. Include lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains (brown rice, barley, oatmeal) in your diet. Exercise a little everyday! You can start with exercising 10 minutes per day and slowly increase this time to 30 minutes per day for 5 days per week. Ask your doctor about healthy tips for exercise and nutrition.
Natalie Mora is from San Antonio, Texas, and is a fourth year medical student at SUNY Upstate Medical University. Her focus is on diabetes and preventative medicine. She is a member of the SUNY Upstate’s chapter of the Latino Medical Student Association, a national organization whose mission is to educate and advocate for the health needs of the Latino community. LMSA members, including herself, contribute to CNY Latino and raising awareness regarding the many health issues affecting the Latinos of Central NY and beyond.