Many women know perimenopause as the stage characterized by hot flashes, mood swings, and other bothersome symptoms associated with the menopause transition. This stage typically lasts 2 - 10 years and begins in a woman's early or mid-forties. While perimenopause and menopause are natural processes that cannot be stopped, it is entirely possible to take steps to alleviate the symptoms they bring.
As women get older, the menstrual cycle naturally draws to a close. This is called menopause, and it happens on the day a woman has gone 12 consecutive months without a period. Before this happens, however, hormone levels fluctuate up and down and eventually decline in a stage known as perimenopause, or “around menopause.” These hormones - like estrogen and progesterone - not only control the menstrual cycle, but they also influence other processes in the body. Because of their diverse roles, bothersome symptoms may appear when hormones are out of balance.
Many symptoms are associated with hormonal imbalance during perimenopause. Some symptoms, like hot flashes, are more commonly reported than others. The frequency and intensity of symptoms can also vary from woman to woman. Because of these natural differences, each woman's menopause experience is unique. Perimenopause symptoms include:
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Irregular periods
- Mood swings and irritability
- Vaginal dryness
- Loss of libido
- Sleep disturbances
- Urinary incontinence
- Difficulty concentrating
- Memory lapses
- Weight gain
- Hair loss or thinning
- Joint and muscle pain
- Changes in body odor
Tips for Managing Perimenopause
Menopause is a natural process, not a condition to be treated. Even so, many changes that happen during perimenopause can be managed with appropriate lifestyle adjustments. Not only do modifications in habits have the potential to alleviate perimenopause symptoms, but they also improve overall health and well-being.
Consume a balanced diet
Many dietary recommendations during perimenopause are based on changes related to aging, but consuming a well-rounded diet can also reduce perimenopause symptoms. First, since metabolism slows down with age, women typically need to consume fewer calories during the menopause transition than earlier in their lives. This means moderation of portion sizes, which can also help curb menopausal weight gain.
Women over 50 may need to adjust their nutrient intake to ensure they get the following each day:
- 2.4 mcg of vitamin B12
- 1.5 mg of vitamin B6
- 1,200 mg of calcium
- 600 IU of vitamin D
Maintaining a diet high in dietary fiber and low in saturated fat can also help prevent cholesterol buildup and cardiovascular disease, the risk of which increases with age and menopause.
One recommendation specific to the menopause transition is the consumption of phytoestrogenic foods like tofu, soymilk, flaxseed, and chickpeas. These foods contain plant compounds that act like a weaker form of estrogen in the body, helping to raise estrogen levels when they are low. These foods are also rich in protein, omega-3 fatty acids, or both.
Physical activity is not only good for the cardiovascular system, but it can also help relieve perimenopause symptoms like mood swings and sleep problems. Ideally, a perimenopausal woman should do two and a half hours of aerobic exercise spread throughout the week, as well as strength-training exercises twice a week. Strength training is especially important during the menopause transition because it helps keep bones strong; women are at a greater risk of developing osteoporosis after menopause due to low estrogen levels.
Many women have busy schedules and therefore have a hard time working in exercise. This is understandable, but it's important to be physically active when possible; there's no need to specifically go the gym or an exercise class. For example, taking the stairs instead of the elevator is a simple way to work an exercise that is both weight-bearing and aerobic into a crammed schedule.
When hormone levels are out of balance, that sets the stage for some symptoms to appear. Episodic perimenopause symptoms - like hot flashes and mood swings - each have their own triggers, but some triggers are especially notorious. Caffeine is a stimulant that - in excess - can set off hot flashes and sleep problems, so it's recommended to moderate intake of coffee, tea, and soft drinks. Alcoholic drinks can trigger hot flashes, memory lapses, and night sweats, so likewise, it's best to limit consumption. Spicy foods are another known trigger of hot flashes and digestive problems.
Women who smoke tend to start menopause one to two years earlier than those who don't. This is in part because the chemicals in cigarettes lower estrogen levels, exacerbating the hormonal imbalance of perimenopause. Quitting can no doubt be a difficult process, but it's well worth it considering that smoking worsens menopause symptoms and further elevates the risks of cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis.
Stress can worsen perimenopause symptoms and perimenopause symptoms can generate more stress, creating a vicious cycle. To break this, it's important to take some time out of every day to relax and release tension. For many women, this can be difficult, but no one person can do everything. Taking time for one's own health may mean saying no to extra obligations.
Each woman has her own way of relaxing; there's no wrong way to do it as long as a woman is not undermining her healthy lifestyle changes. Yoga is a calming practice that can improve mood and also serves as a form of exercise. Other ideas for relaxing activities include meditation, taking a warm bath, reading a book, socializing with friends, spending time with a pet, and listening to music.
Maintain strong support
During this transition, it is paramount to have a solid social network and avoid isolation. Talking about menopause was once taboo, but things have become more open. At menopause support groups, women can share their experiences and exchange tips with women going through the same transition. These groups can meet in person or be found on online forums. It is also suggested that women take time to talk to their family about perimenopause symptoms to foster understanding and garner support at home.
Alternative Treatments for Perimenopause Symptoms
Many women use alternative treatments to complement their healthy lifestyle changes and conquer perimenopause symptoms. These therapies also help avoid the need for pharmaceuticals, though in severe cases, medical intervention may be necessary.
Natural treatments for perimenopause symptoms
The following therapies can help in the relief of certain symptoms, but they do not address the root of the problem.
- Aromatherapy massage. A therapeutic massage with essential oils can help relieve mood swings, joint pain, and other perimenopause symptoms.
- Valerian. This herb induces calmness and sleep, helping with mood swings and insomnia.
- Sage. Sage tea has traditionally been used to reduce sweating, so it can be helpful for hot flashes, night sweats, and unwanted body odor.
- Ginkgo. This herb is typically used to improve memory.
Natural treatments for balancing hormone levels
To treat the underlying cause of perimenopause symptoms, the following herbal supplements are the most commonly used.
- Phytoestrogenic herbal supplements. These products typically contain black cohosh, soy, red clover, dong quai, or a combination of these herbs. They contain phytoestrogens, which are plant-based compounds that act like a weaker form of estrogen in the body. Thus, these supplements can help raise estrogen levels when they are low, but they should not be used for more than six months at a time, since long-term use may increase the risk of developing breast cancer.
- Hormone-regulating herbal supplements. On the other hand, these products - such as Macafem - do not contain any type of hormones. Rather, they are rich in nutrients that support the hormonal glands, allowing the glands to produce estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and other hormones at balanced levels. This relieves perimenopause symptoms naturally and without side effects.
Because each woman's menopause experience is unique, some of the above approaches may be better suited than others. Women can take charge of their wellness during perimenopause by making the relevant lifestyle adjustments and taking hormone-regulating herbal supplements to get to the root of perimenopause symptoms.
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