For women, aging and menopause seem to go hand in hand. Along with the positive changes that menopause can bring (freedom from worry about unwanted pregnancies, for example), there are also many side effects that have a far less pleasant impact on a woman’s health during this life shift.
Below are five of the most common problematic health changes associated with menopause. While health issues should always be discussed with one’s physician (to ensure something more serious is not afoot), there are steps that can be taken to ameliorate some of the most common symptoms of this life stage. A good resource for women with questions about symptoms and available treatments is the North American Menopause Society’s website .
These mood changes–including anxiety, fatigue, irritability, and mild depression–are some of the most common indicators of both perimenopause and menopause. Family members and friends may think that a new person has emerged, but really these are just the effects of changing hormone levels. Often these symptoms make women feel out of sorts and out of control, but there are many ways to deal with mood changes short of medication. Among ways that women can reduce their stress and, thus, the heightening of these symptoms, are to use techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, massage, and exercise to help calm the body and promote feelings of overall wellness. A healthy diet can also contribute positively, while highly caffeinated beverages can have the opposite effect.
Hot flashes and night sweats
During menopause, it is common for women to get unexpected bursts of overheated body temperatures. Hot flashes (or hot flushes) are believed to be the result of changes in the hypothalamus (the part of the brain that regulates body temperature). These symptoms seem particularly prevalent at night, when some women will awaken drenched in sweat. To combat these symptoms, try the following techniques: dress in light pajamas, use cold packs to keep head and feet cool, have layers of bedding that can be adjusted throughout the night, make cool water available, and use a fan, if necessary.
While hot flashes often are a night-time symptom of menopause, often simply falling asleep can become a serious issue. Instead of immediately seeking sleep medication as an aid, physicians suggest women try a wide range of techniques first. Among the activities that may help anyone (not just menopausal women) fall asleep are going to bed and waking at the same time daily (even on weekends); keeping bedroom conditions dark, cool, and quiet; using relaxation techniques before bedtime (eliminate the television and read a book instead); and avoiding alcohol and caffeine late in the day. One trick that may work is to have a snack of peanut butter or milk before bedtime (both contain tryptophan, which helps the body relax).
Urinary changes or incontinence
Having to go to the bathroom more frequently or urinary incontinence (the involuntary loss of urine while coughing or sneezing) are frequently associated with menopausal women. To combat these symptoms without medication, physicians suggest freeing one’s diet of highly acidic foods (which can irritate the bladder lining), drinking more water, and practicing Kegel exercises, which strengthen pelvic muscles.
Many women complain that, with menopause, they seem more forgetful. Is this a process of aging, or truly associated with the body’s changes? The verdict seems to be out at the moment, but it appears that the interrupted sleep patterns many women experience, as well as hot flashes and mid-life stress, can contribute to memory loss, at least temporarily. Remaining physically, mentally, and socially active are the biggest tools for anyone who is aging to combat memory loss and forgetfulness.
Women who are in the throes of menopause and experiencing one or more of these problems should not be alarmed. They are common and treatable conditions, and for those with severe conditions in any category, over-the-counter and prescribed medications are available. For most, however, taking steps to lead a healthy, engaged life will also benefit to combat the worst of menopause’s side effects.