Menopausal Melancholy

Hot flashes and night sweats change lives

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

The end of a woman's reproductive years brings on menopause. Beginning in the mid to late 40s, women's ovaries begin to shut down the release of eggs.

Ovaries are responsible for storing and expelling eggs every cycle to the fallopian tubes. Ovaries also produce the female hormones progesterone and estrogen. While these two hormones control menstruation, they also impact many bodily functions.

Young women having their ovaries surgically removed or going into menopause prematurely can also bring on menopause and its symptoms prematurely.

Menopausal Missteps in the Short Run

All women eventually go through menopause, but approximately 33 percent never experience the symptoms associated with it. Those are the lucky ones.

Every woman's experience during menopause is unique. Some have only slight discomfort while others have their world rocked by it. The short-term symptoms are directly related to the decrease in hormones caused by the ovaries shutting down. These short-term symptoms include:

  • Hot flashes - shots of heat beginning in the chest that can result in shivers or sweating. These flashes can also be accompanied by heart palpitations.
  • Night sweats - basically hot flashes that occur during sleep and are disruptive to sleep.
  • Vaginal dryness - caused by the decreasing supply of estrogen in the body.
  • Skin changes - during menopause one's skin changes and may become less elastic as well as drier and thinner.
  • Moodiness - may include anxiety, irritability and mood swings.
  • Urinary changes - incontinence during coughing or laughing and are caused by less muscle tone in the bladder. Urinary tract infections are also more common during menopause.
  • Sexual desire can diminish during menopause. While it isn't quite clear why this happens, it is thought to be caused by estrogen and progesterone level changes and/or vaginal dryness.
  • Memory problems can begin to occur during menopause as well as concentration issues.
  • Headaches can also increase during this time.

Menopausal Missteps in the Long Run

While these effects of menopause don't usually happen at the beginning of menopause, they sometimes occur in postmenopausal women.

Coronary artery disease risk increases after menopause. Lower estrogen levels are thought to be linked to this as another one of estrogen's job is maintaining healthy cholesterol levels.

Osteoporosis can occur because estrogen helps regulate bone mass. Bone mass during menopause decreases by 25 percent. This raises the risk of fractures in postmenopausal women.

Vision deterioration including cataracts and macular degeneration can occur after menopause.

Managing Menopause

Doctors may prescribe hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to help diminish menopause symptoms, but this decision must be made after careful consideration of each woman's personal risk of breast cancer and heart disease. 

Lifestyle choices don't require a visit to the doctor and are also available to treat the symptoms and capture other health benefits. They include:

  • Eating a nutritious, plant-based diet. The diet also needs to be rich in fiber and low in fat.
  • Consuming 1,500 milligrams of calcium every day through a 1,000 IU vitamin supplement and diet.
  • Limiting caffeine, alcohol, sugar and salt consumption.
  • Entering a smoking cessation program.
  • Using lubricants to treat vaginal dryness.
  • Exercising regularly.

According to Neissa Brown Springman, a personal trainer specializing in training "Monarchs," her name for women from ages 40-60 who are undergoing the same metamorphosis as the butterfly through exercise and inspiration, says, "Ladies engaging in our outdoor, cross training experience report a reduction in menopause symptoms through routine exercise." Her Monarch program includes approximately 50 percent resistance training and 50 percent aerobic activities.

Botanical Offerings

The plant world also has its form of weak estrogen and when ingested, may help relieve hot flash symptoms and lower cholesterol levels. Plant estrogen examples include isoflavones found in many soy products, beans and whole grains. Not all menopausal women are able to convert the soy to weak estrogen though.

Flaxseed, also known as linseed, is a plant-based food that contains lignans. The lignans act like a weak estrogen when eaten. Studies have indicated that flaxseed may lower breast cancer risk and help lower cholesterol. Use the crushed or ground forms of flaxseed because that is the only form that contains lignans.

When taken in moderation, these isoflavone supplements are safe. Extraordinary amounts of soy and other foods containing isoflavones have not been scientifically proven to be safe and may be harmful to women with a history of breast cancer. Always consult your doctor if using these plant-based supplements.

Review Date: 
August 22, 2011