Here's a Hot Flash
The saying goes that life is not a destination; it's a journey. Well, the opposite can be said about menopause. Menopause is the welcome end of the long journey called perimenopause that can be incredibly challenging for any woman.
While there are probably some women out there who breeze through menopause and perimenopause without breaking a sweat, the majority will suffer at lease some level of symptoms. These symptoms can range from those that are widely recognized, such as hot flashes and mood swings, to the less common: joint pain, constipation and skin rashes.
Just the Facts, Ma'am
Comparing menopause to the end of a journey is a helpful way to understand the facts about the period (no pun intended) in a woman's life that is currently lumped together under the catch-all term "menopause."
The word "menopause" literally means "the end of menses." At this point, many of the uncomfortable symptoms of the past five or 10 years end, and a woman begins to feel like herself again. It's the period leading up to menopause, called "perimenopause," when these problems manifest themselves.
Perimenopause – which Sue Spataro refers to as "the change before the change" – generally begins a full five to 10 years before menopause. Spataro, a registered nurse, is the founder and administrator of HotFlash!, a Web site devoted to helping women through every stage of menopause.
"The average age for menopause in this country is 51," Spataro says. "This means that 50 percent of all women will experience it before 51, and the other 50 percent will experience it after age 51. I would say many women begin to experience perimenopause anywhere from their early 30s to late 40s. There are even women who may experience perimenopause at the tail end of their 20s."
It's only after a woman hasn't had a period for at least a year that she is considered to have reached menopause.
Easing the Pain
It was after she began experiencing symptoms of perimenopause that Spataro founded HotFlash! "At the time, there was very little information about perimenopause, what it is, what it does to a woman short and long term and how women can feel well despite the lack of sleep, hot flashes and other disruptive signs of perimenopause," Spataro says. "This lack of information inspired me to create a place where women could find all the information they needed to get up to speed about this big health change."
Spataro takes a healthy lifestyle approach to perimenopause and thinks this preparation should start in a woman's 20s. "I strongly feel women should prepare for perimenopause and menopause during their 20s and 30s," she says. "Preparing for these hormonal changes means taking care of ourselves, which we all should be doing throughout our lives. This includes staying fit through working out regularly, eating a well-balanced diet, learning effective stress-management techniques like yoga and getting plenty of good sleep."
Sometimes that may seem difficult, but there are actually foods and supplements that can help stabilize a woman's hormonal balance. Dr. Larrian Gillespie has written a book on the subject called The Menopause Diet (Healthy Life Publications, 2003). Dr. Gillespie was working in her successful urology practice when she hit 40 and began to gain weight – even though she'd always been naturally thin. Furthermore, she seemed to always be hungry, particularly for refined carbohydrates.
In her quest to find out why her body seemed to be changing so rapidly, Dr. Gillespie began to do research on women's hormones and how mid-life changes affect weight gain. Eventually, she changed careers to focus on the issues of women's health.
The Healthiest Lifestyle
While The Menopause Diet offers some very specific recipes for easing menopause symptoms, both Spataro and Dr. Gillespie agree on some basic lifestyle approaches that can keep a woman at her optimum health as she goes through these changes.
Eat foods as close to their natural state as possible. Rely heavily on lean sources of protein such as fish, poultry and tofu, and eat red meats sparingly. Carbohydrates should come primarily from whole-wheat bread products, vegetables and fruit. Avoid "white" carbs such as rice, white bread and pasta.
"I gained 35 pounds doing what everyone said you're supposed to do, which is an emphasis on less protein and more low-fat products, which tend to be more carbohydrates," Dr. Gillespie says. "In fact, you need to increase your protein intake and decrease your carbs as you get older because it helps stabilize both insulin and estrogen levels."
As for fats and sugars, they should be used sparingly. Fats should be high-quality fats such as olive oil. Look for hidden sugars in products; it's often disguised as corn syrup.
Dr. Gillespie is the first to admit that she hates exercise. She's also the first to admit how very necessary it is for women in their menopausal years. Spataro agrees. "Women should do aerobic exercises along with weight training to slim down if needed, and to keep their metabolisms from slowing down and causing weight gain," she says.
Exercise also helps to keep women from losing bone mass, a process that speeds up precipitously before and after menopause.
Other Important Changes
If you smoke, stop. Heart attacks kill far more women than breast cancer, and after menopause a woman's chance for a sudden, fatal heart attack is near that of a man's. Furthermore, the single largest risk factor for a heart attack in a woman is smoking.
Limit alcohol. It causes weight gain and is suspected to raise the risk of breast and other cancers.