There are so many myths about menopause - most of which have women running for the hills. While there are certainly some annoying features of this phase of life, there are also so many possibilities to improve and/or maintain your quality of life and health.
Myth: Menopause happens suddenly.
The truth is…
Menopause is just one day - but it happens to mark the absence of menstrual periods for one year. Before that, there is a time of transition called peri-menopause which refers to the beginning of hormonal shifts leading up to menopause; after that is post-menopause where changes can continue. We often use the word menopause to refer to this time of transition and beyond. The process typically happens gradually in natural menopause (compared to hysterectomy or chemotherapy induced menopause). Menopause is a stage of life experience that is unique to each woman. It is strongly influenced by personal challenges and changes in
your personal roles within the family and society.
Myth: Every woman experiences all the "features" of menopause.
The truth is…
During perimenopause, the rise and fall of hormones that happens during reproductive years slows down and stops, and you may notice changes to your mood and body. Mood changes are one of them, but there is no one-size-fits-all. Every woman is unique, so the experience of menopause will be equally different. You may experience one or more of the following to varying degrees:
Menstrual cycle - Periods may be farther apart or closer together; last longer or end sooner; be heavier or lighter. Vasomotor - Commonly called hot flashes and/or night sweats, you might feel hot and then cold to varying degrees. They can happen during the day or night and leave you flushed or drenched in sweat. Skin - Skin may become more dry, thin and less elastic. Sleep - It may be difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep, and/or you may feel tired. These sleep changes may be related to natural aging or hormonal changes, or both. Sex - Interest in having sex may change, with some women becoming more open to having sex without being concerned about getting pregnant and others losing interest in sex altogether. Mood - How menopause affects mood is unclear. There is some evidence that stress, depression and other previous mood difficulties, and poor general health contribute heavily to overall mood changes, anxiety, and irritability during this time. Physical - Changes to your body might become more obvious with achy and stiff joints, weight gain, and incontinence. Body composition might change with greater fatty tissue and less muscle. Muscle helps burn calories, so losing muscle mass can make it harder to burn off calories and easier to gain weight.
Myth: Menopause means you’re officially old.
The truth is…
Hot flashes, weight gain and other side effects of menopause can be annoying and even depressing for some women, but it’s important to keep a positive perspective. Many women have more than one third of their lives ahead of them after menopause so there is still a lot of good living left to do! It can be helpful to think of menopause as a time of change when you can learn more about yourself, improve your body and change your habits to get what you want out of life. There’s a lot more to you than menopause!
Myth: Absolutely nothing can be done about incontinence.
The truth is…
Accidental peeing is common among women after pregnancy and as women age. In fact, in the rush to “feel normal” and “get their bodies back” after pregnancy, women might push themselves to exercise intensely without first developing the proper strength and synergy between core muscles. Sometimes, the effects of this stress on the body aren’t obvious until later years when we notice incontinence.
It’s never too late to start improving the tone and balance of your core and pelvic muscles regardless of whether they are tense, weak, or out of sync, or some combination of these. Start by learning about your pelvic floor muscles and identifying which muscles need to contract and relax. Kegel exercises are often touted as a way to improve pelvic strength, but should be used with caution. It’s helpful to check in with a therapist who understands the pelvic floor because kegel exercises can be counterproductive if your pelvic floor is too tense to begin with.
Regardless of age, it’s possible to reduce or even eliminate incontinence.
Myth: Weight gain is inevitable.
The truth is…
As we age beyond 30, we lose muscle mass. Because muscle burns fat, this leads to fat based weight gain. Menopause doesn’t cause added weight gain, but it can increase belly fat because hormone and metabolism changes can change fat storage from the hips and thighs to the stomach.
It’s possible to remain at or below your baseline weight by following a healthy diet and getting moderate exercise. Consider a regular exercise plan that includes aerobic training, strength training, balance, and stretching. If faster-paced exercise is difficult due to health complications, you might want to try yoga.
Sometime the way we carry ourselves makes our midsections appear larger. Take a look at your posture and the alignment of your abs, back and pelvic floor. Use the following checklist:
Front of your hip bones on the same plane as your pubic bone
Pelvic floor parallel to the floor
Top of head parallel to diaphragm and pelvic floor
Shoulders in line with ears
These simple adjustment might make a big difference to how you appear.
Myth: You can’t do anything about painful sex.
The truth is…
Sex can still be enjoyable in menopause!
People may link hormonal changes to a decline in sexual desire and painful sex, but your sex drive (including desire and orgasm) before menopause is also a great factor in determining how your sex life will play out.
It’s true that a decline in estrogen causes vaginal dryness, and that vaginal walls become thinner and less elastic, which can lead to discomfort, but there is so much you can do to improve and/or maintain the quality of your sex life.
Improve your core and pelvic health. This can enhance strength and awareness of the muscles involved in pleasurable sexual sensations leading to orgasm. It can also address pelvic and back pain, and treat pelvic organ prolapse, which would lead to a more fulfilling sex life.
Try yoga to improve your sexual health. A study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine (Feb. 2010) stated that regular yoga practice improves several aspects of sexual function in women, including desire, arousal, orgasm, and overall satisfaction. While the study was limited by it’s size and lack of control group, mindfully engaging the core and pelvic floor can improve muscle tone and address emotional triggers that might limit sexual satisfaction.
Prescription low-dose estrogen can help counteract the thinning and dryness of vaginal tissues. Talk to your doctor about potential side effects and whether hormone therapy makes sense for you.
Over-the-counter water-based lubricants and sex toys can help boost the natural flow of things. The more sex you have, the healthier your vaginal tissues will be.
Journal of Sexual Medicine, Feb. 2010, pp. 964-970.