The word menopause is scary for many women, who associate it with being “old”. The thought of not being able to have children (even if they didn’t want to in the first place) is quite scary, and the “terrible changes” that supposedly come with it even more.
Because of this, early menopause sounds like a real nightmare. Well, menopause is not the monster everyone paints it to be. It is a process every woman goes through and there is life (a lot of life) after it – yes, even after early menopause.
All the questions about early menopause answered
So, what is early menopause, why does it happen, and how can one deal with it? We’ve got answers! Spoiler alert: it is not that bad.
What is early menopause?
As you know, menopause is that period of a woman’s life when menstruation and menstrual cycles stop completely, and a woman is no longer able to get pregnant and carry children.
This usually happens between 45 and 55 years of age, sometimes a bit earlier, or sometimes a bit later. When menopause occurs before 45 years of age, it is called early menopause or premature menopause (if before the age of 40).
Early menopause should not be confused with primary ovarian insufficiency (POI). POI occurs when the ovaries stop working properly before the age of 40. Still, with POI, a woman might experience irregular or occasional periods and cycles for years and can get pregnant. In early menopause, a woman stops having periods and can no longer get pregnant.
What can cause early menopause?
Although there are several causes for early menopause, this cause can’t always be determined. The most common are:
- Genetics: early menopause can be inherited. 5 to 30% of women with early menopause have a female relative who’s also had early menopause. Not an exact science but looking at your mother’s age when she started menopause can provide a clue of when you could start as well.
- Chromosome defects: chromosome abnormalities that affect the ovaries can cause early menopause, such as Turner syndrome, Fragile X syndrome.
- Autoimmune diseases: these include coeliac disease, thyroid disease, Crohn’s disease, systemic lupus erythematosus and rheumatoid arthritis, for example. An autoimmune disease means that one’s immune system will attack somebody tissues it identifies as “invaders”. When it attacks the ovaries, the result can be early menopause. 10 to 30% of the women with early menopause suffer from an autoimmune disease.
- Epilepsy: women who suffer from epilepsy are most likely to experience early menopause.
- Cancer treatment: while chemo- and radiotherapy do not cause menopause, they can be a risk factor for early menopause.
- Lifestyle: some habits, like smoking, put women at a higher risk of experiencing early menopause. Having a very low BMI can also be a factor.
*Idiopathic premature menopause: this is what early menopause is called when there isn’t a cause for it. It comprises about 60% of the cases.
*Induced menopause: sometimes menopause can be specifically induced for medical reasons, such as removal of the ovaries or the uterus.
Can you prepare for early menopause?
Unless it is induced menopause, there isn’t much to do to prevent it or prepare for it.
When it starts, it is nearly impossible to reverse it. If you think you might be experiencing early menopause, there are a few things you can do to prepare:
- See a doctor. A doctor will be able to tell you with more certainty if you’re going through early menopause.
- Watch your weight. Doctors think there might be a link between obesity and stronger hot flashes, and low weight can put you at risk for other complications. Additionally, hormonal imbalances can affect your metabolism.
- Don’t forget to exercise. Exercise is good for everything. It helps with keeping weight under control, stress levels, sleep, depression, bones, muscles and more. As a bonus, exercise also helps with memory and cognition, which can suffer during the initial stages of menopause when the hormones are still crazy.
- Do your Kegels. With menopause, there can occur some changes to the muscles in the vagina and to other tissues as well. Doing Kegels and other pelvic exercises can improve this.
- Consider medication for extreme symptoms as sleeplessness, stress, fatigue, and mood swings.
- Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). This is not indicated for every woman, but some might benefit from it. Get advice from your doctor.
What are the symptoms of early menopause?
The most obvious symptom is when menstruation stops for a lengthy period (usually 12 months). However, menopause rarely happens quickly, the average duration of menopause is around 7 years, and can last until 14. Other symptoms are:
- irregular or missed periods
- longer or shorter periods than your normal.
- heavy bleeding
- periods that last longer than a week
- the longer amount of time in between periods
- mood swings
- changes in sexual desire and libido
- vaginal dryness
- sleeping troubles
- hot flashes
- night sweats
- loss of bladder control
Note that women who go through early menopause have a greater risk of developing osteoporosis and heart problems because of the reduced oestrogen.
Myths about menopause and early menopause
Because early menopause is rare (affects around 1% of women), there are still some myths and misconceptions about it.
• The earlier the first period, the earlier the menopause.
This is commonly believed as true, but it’s not. There is no link between early periods and early menopause.
• Women who have had children and have breastfed will have menopause later in life.
Pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding have no impact on menopause age.
• Hormonal birth control delays menopause.
Although birth control stops ovulation, it doesn’t stop the loss of follicles, so it’s not like not ovulating is “saving” eggs and thus delaying menopause.
• When menopause starts, all libido is gone, and sex life is over.
Not true, some women even report an increased sex drive after entering menopause, possibly because they no longer worry about getting pregnant. Because of this, couples, where the woman is in menopause, can even have more satisfying sex than before.
• As soon as menopause starts, women stop being able to get pregnant.
A woman is not considered to be in menopause until it has been 12 consecutive months without a cycle. So, it is rare but possible to get pregnant while having symptoms of menopause.
• Menopausal women are emotional, irrational, and “crazy”.
Now this is a pretty misogynistic view of women, don’t you think? Women in menopause have a set of symptoms that can range in severity, much like PMS. A bit more compassion and understanding go a long way 😊
Take good care. Of your vagina. Of yourself. Of our planet.