Menopause

Menopause refers to the very last menstrual period. It happens when the women’s reproductive system goes through fundamental changes, and ovaries cannot release eggs anymore.

If you’re wanting to learn more about exactly what menopause is and how it works, you’ve come to the right place. We’ll outline what the signs and symptoms of menopause are, how long it lasts and how to lose weight during this period.

Menopause defined

The word ‘menopause’ literally means the “end of monthly cycles” – when the female body’s periods end. From a medical perspective, a woman enters menopause one year after her menstrual periods have stopped.  However, the telltale signs and symptoms of menopause may occur five years or more before the periods actually stop.

Menopause marks the end of a woman’s fertile years. As a result, the hormones in the body take a dive. As the ovaries stop releasing eggs into the uterus, they also produce less of the hormone estrogen.

Most women begin menopause in their late forties or early fifties, with the average age of menopause in Australia being 51 years. Some women stop having periods by the time they are in their mid-forties, while others continue into their fifties.

Every woman is different and their bodies have different and unique timelines. A small percentage of women will experience early menopause when the hormonal changes begin before the age of 40.

What are the symptoms of menopause?

The symptoms of menopause come in three stages:

  • Perimenopause
  • Menopause
  • Postmenopause

The total average duration of these phases is more than seven years. Symptoms of each stage may seem similar. Every woman’s experience of menopause and menopause symptoms will be different. Some women may experience only some of the symptoms and each stage, and a lucky few may experience none at all.

Perimenopause symptoms

Perimenopause is the term used to describe the changes that occur in the lead up to menopause. Symptoms can include:

  • Irregular periods
  • Changes to the duration and frequency of periods
  • Hot flushes
  • Night sweats
  • Sleep problems or insomnia
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability, depression and anxiety
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Painful intercourse

Some women do not experience perimenopause and go straight into menopause.

Note that estrogen performs many actions within the body, not just the releasing of eggs. Estrogen helps maintain healthy cholesterol levels and is used for bone and skin health. Therefore, the signs that menopause is on the way may begin five years or more before the periods actually stop.

Menopause signs

The most telling sign of menopause is the cessation of monthly periods. But before the periods stop altogether, there may be other changes. Some women have periods that are much lighter than before, while others experience heavier bleeding than they are used to. Cycles may be longer or shorter, or periods may be skipped on occasion.

Other signs of menopause include:

  • Hot flushes
  • Insomnia
  • Headaches
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Painful intercourse
  • A reduced sex drive
  • Hair growth or loss
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability, depression and anxiety
  • Reduced muscle mass
  • Irregular heartbeat, or palpitations

Less common symptoms that can also be noticed during menopause include:

  • Stomach and digestion issues
  • Joint aches
  • Fatigue
  • Mental fogginess
  • Painful intercourse
  • Urinary discomfort
  • Frequent urinary tract infections

These symptoms tend to be at their most noticeable for the first year of menopause. With the changes occurring in a woman’s body, other systems can be impacted. During menopause, there are increased chances of:

When seeking medical support for menopause, it is important that a woman’s overall health and wellbeing are considered and supported.

Postmenopause symptoms

Symptoms of menopause may be present for the year following as well, although generally over this time the symptoms become less noticeable and less concerning. Signs and symptoms of post menopause include:

  • Changes in weight as fat shifts from the hips to the abdomen
  • A sensation of fullness or bloating
  • Continued insomnia, irritability, anxiety or depression
  • Vaginal and vulvar discomfort
  • A change in bone density

The risk of cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis can increase, so it is important to stay in touch with your GP over this time. If you notice any bleeding more than 12 months after your final period, you should consult a doctor or gynaecologist to have the cause investigated. Bleeding is one of the post-menopause symptoms you don’t want to ignore.

What causes menopause weight gain?

Although we don’t know the exact cause of weight gain during menopause, this common symptom is thought to be associated with the change in estrogen. This hormone influences the distribution of fat across the body. Fat is more likely to start to be stored around the abdomen, where it may have previously been carried around the lower body and hips. 

 However, it is also believed that ageing is an underlying cause of weight gain during menopause. As people get older, muscle mass in the body starts to decrease because we don’t work as efficiently as we did when we were younger. This is called ‘sarcopenia’. As muscle mass falls, you start to burn fewer calories and make it difficult to maintain weight.

How to lose weight during menopause

 Menopause weight loss can be challenging. As your body changes, the best way to manage it is to make sustainable diet and lifestyle changes.

Exercise

 Staying active during menopause will help you keep weight changes under control. Find an activity that you enjoy, like yoga or swimming, or commit to taking regular walks, even if they are short.

Dietary changes

Developing positive dietary changes is also a helpful way to lose weight. Reduce your alcohol intake, have at least one serving of oily fish each week (packed with healthy omega 3 fats) and increase your fibre by having plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. Opt for plant-based meals and reduce excessive red meat intake.

Avoid crash dieting

Many women try to combat menopausal weight gain with crash dieting. This approach is not sustainable and may make you more likely to put on weight in the long run. Rather, eat more slowly and chew your food thoroughly.

How to relieve menopause bloating

Many women notice a feeling of bloating during pre-menopause and menopause. Bloating has been found to be more common among women in these age groups. It may be attributed to the changes in hormones which increase sensitivities in the gut.

Hormone replacement therapy may also have an impact on digestion. Women also tend to have more sensitivity in the gut area, more readily noticing changes to pressure or volume in the digestive organs. Bloating could be associated with gas, constipation or even stress.

Some of the ways to relieve menopause bloating include:

  • Reduce the amount of air you swallow. This can be done by chewing food thoroughly and avoiding chewing gum.
  • Reduce your intake of carbonated drinks. This is because these drinks contain aerated bubbles.
  • Reduce certain ‘trigger’ foods. Although they are good for you, certain legumes and broccoli can lead to an increase in gas, so monitor your intake of beans, lentils, chickpeas, cabbage and broccoli. Other foods such as pears, apples, wheat, onion and garlic can also cause bloating by drawing in excess water and quickly being fermented in the gut.
  • Staying hydrated. This is very important, especially if you are becoming hot and sweaty. Hydration will keep your gastrointestinal tract smooth. Two litres a day may seem a lot when you first start out but is an important target to strive for.
  • Relax and unwind. Take time out when you need to. Also consider mediation, mindfulness, relaxation or practices like yoga.

What is the earliest age for menopause?

When menopause occurs earlier than the age of 40, it is considered to be premature menopause. =

Early menopause may also result from medical treatment or procedures, such as a hysterectomy. This can happen naturally or for a medical reason, such as when either ovaries or the uterus are surgically removed.

Early menopause may also occur for women with:

  • Cancers being treated through chemotherapy or radiotherapy
  • Autoimmune diseases such as thyroid disease or rheumatoid arthritis
  • HIV and AIDS
  • Missing chromosomes such as in Turner’s syndrome
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome (myalgic encephalomyelitis)
  • Primary ovarian insufficiency in which periods cease spontaneously

See a menopause doctor near you

Menopause will occur for all women and is a natural part of becoming older. It indicates the beginning of a new phase of life.  Some women sail through menopause without needing any support or treatment.

You do not need to suffer or experience symptoms that have an impact on how you are feeling or sleeping or impacting your sex life. If you have symptoms associated with peri-menopause, menopause or post-menopause, speak to a menopause doctor to discuss what can be done to bring you some relief.

Dr Caroline has a special interest in menopause and is a member of the Australian Menopause Society. She takes a holistic view of wellbeing when treating and supporting women with menopause related systems. Dr Caroline listens and responds to the specific issues and concerns of the individual patient.

Dr Caroline is accessible when you need her and can be easily contacted online. Unlike others, there are no months of waiting lists to see Dr Caroline. Don’t bother searching ‘menopause doctors near me’ endlessly. Caroline has rooms conveniently located in both Bundoora and Heidelberg and sees patients from all over Victoria.