Perimenopause, also called the menopausal transition, is the interval in which a woman's body makes a natural shift from more-or-less regular cycles of ovulation and menstruation toward permanent infertility, or menopause.
Women start perimenopause at different ages. In your 40s, or even as early as your 30s, your may start noticing the signs. Your periods may become irregular — longer, shorter, heavier or lighter, sometimes more and sometimes less than 28 days apart. You may also experience menopause-like symptoms, such as hot flashes, sleep problems and vaginal dryness. Treatments are available to help ease these symptoms.
Once you've gone through 12 consecutive months without a menstrual period, you've officially reached menopause, and the perimenopause period is over.
During the perimenopausal period some subtle — and some not-so-subtle — changes in your body may occur. Some things you might experience include:
- Menstrual irregularity. As ovulation becomes more erratic, the intervals between periods may be longer or shorter, your flow may be scanty to profuse, and you may skip some periods. Early perimenopause is defined as a change in your menstrual cycle length of more than seven days. Late perimenopause is characterized by two or more missed periods and an interval of 60 days or more between periods.
- Hot flashes and sleep problems. About 65 to 75 percent of women experience hot flashes, most commonly during late perimenopause. The intensity, duration and frequency vary. Sleep problems are often due to hot flashes or night sweats, but sometimes sleep becomes erratic even without them.
- Mood changes. Some women experience mood swings, irritability or increased risk of depression during perimenopause, but the cause of these symptoms may be sleep disruption caused by hot flashes. Mood changes may also be caused by factors not related to the hormonal changes of perimenopause.
- Vaginal and bladder problems. When estrogen levels diminish, your vaginal tissues may lose lubrication and elasticity, making intercourse painful. Low estrogen levels may also leave you more vulnerable to urinary or vaginal infections. Loss of tissue tone may contribute to urinary incontinence.
- Decreasing fertility. As ovulation becomes irregular, your ability to conceive decreases. However, as long as you're having periods, pregnancy remains a possibility. If you wish to avoid pregnancy, use birth control until you've had no periods for 12 months.
- Changes in sexual function. During perimenopause, sexual arousal and desire may change. But for most women who had satisfactory sexual intimacy before menopause, this will continue through perimenopause and beyond.
- Loss of bone. With declining estrogen levels, you start to lose bone more quickly than you replace it, increasing your risk of osteoporosis.
- Changing cholesterol levels. Declining estrogen levels may lead to unfavorable changes in your blood cholesterol levels, including an increase in low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol — the "bad" cholesterol — which contributes to an increased risk of heart disease. At the same time, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol — the "good" cholesterol — decreases in many women as they age, which also increases the risk of heart disease.
When to see a doctor
Some women seek medical attention for their perimenopausal symptoms. But others either tolerate the changes or simply don't experience symptoms severe enough to warrant attention. Because subtle symptoms may come on gradually, you may not realize at first that they're all connected to the same thing — fluctuating levels of estrogen and progesterone, another key female hormone.
If you do experience symptoms that interfere with your life or well-being, such as hot flashes, mood swings or changes in sexual function that concern you, see your doctor.
As you go through the menopausal transition, your body's production of estrogen and progesterone fluctuates. These hormonal fluctuations are at the root of the changes your body goes through during perimenopause.
Menopause is a normal phase in a woman's life. But in some women, it may occur earlier than in others. Although not always conclusive, some evidence suggests that certain factors may predispose you to entering perimenopause at an earlier age, including:
- Smoking. The onset of menopause occurs one to two years earlier in women who smoke, compared with women who don't smoke.
- Family history. Women tend to experience menopause around the same age as their mothers and sisters, although the link between family history and age at menopause is still inconclusive.
- Never having delivered a baby. Some studies show that never having had a baby may contribute to early menopause.
- Childhood cancer treatment. Treatment for childhood cancer with chemotherapy or pelvic radiation therapy has been linked to early menopause.
- Hysterectomy. A hysterectomy that removes your uterus, but not your ovaries, usually doesn't cause menopause. Although you no longer have periods, your ovaries still produce estrogen. But such an operation may cause menopause to occur earlier than average.
Irregular periods are a hallmark of perimenopause. Most of the time, this is normal and nothing to be concerned about. However, see your doctor if:
- Bleeding is extremely heavy — you're changing tampons or pads every hour
- Bleeding lasts longer than eight days
- Bleeding occurs between periods
- Periods regularly occur less than 21 days apart
Signs such as these may indicate the presence of an underlying gynecologic problem that requires diagnosis and treatment.
Preparing for your appointment
You'll probably start by discussing your symptoms with your primary care provider. If you aren't already seeing a gynecologist, your doctor may refer you to one.
What you can do
By monitoring your menstrual cycles and recording your signs and symptoms for several months, you'll gain a better understanding of the changes occurring during perimenopause. You'll also have valuable information to share with your doctor.
Appointments can be brief. To make the best use of the limited time, plan ahead and make lists of important information, including:
- A journal of your menstrual cycles for the past few months, including first and last date of bleeding for each cycle, and whether the flow was light, moderate or heavy
- Detailed descriptions of all your symptoms, including premenstrual symptoms
- Names and dosages of all medications you take, including nonprescription drugs and supplements
- Questions for your doctor, such as what treatment options are available
Questions your doctor may ask
To facilitate a discussion about your perimenopausal experience, your doctor may ask questions such as:
- Do you continue to have menstrual periods? If so, what are they like?
- What symptoms are you experiencing?
- How long have you experienced these symptoms?
- How much distress do your symptoms cause you?
- What medications or vitamin supplements do you take?
Tests and diagnosis
Perimenopause is a process — a gradual transition. No one test or sign is enough to determine if you've entered perimenopause. Your doctor takes many things into consideration, including your age, menstrual history, and what symptoms or body changes you're experiencing. Some doctors may order tests to check your hormone levels. But other than checking thyroid function, which can affect hormone levels, hormone testing is rarely necessary or useful to evaluate perimenopause.
Treatments and drugs
Possible therapies to treat perimenopausal symptoms include:
- Oral contraceptives. These are often the most effective treatment to relieve perimenopausal symptoms — even if you don't need them for birth control. Low-dose pills can regulate periods and reduce hot flashes and vaginal dryness.
- Progestin therapy. If you have irregular periods, but you can't — or choose not to — use oral contraceptives, cyclic progestin therapy may regulate your periods. Some women with heavy bleeding during perimenopause may find relief from a progestin-containing intrauterine device (IUD).
- Endometrial ablation. Endometrial ablation may provide relief from the heavy bleeding some women experience during perimenopause. During the procedure, the lining of the uterus (endometrium) is destroyed using a laser, electrical energy or heat, which effectively reduces menstrual flow or ends menstruation. This procedure isn't the right choice for everyone, so talk with your doctor about what is best for you.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Making healthy lifestyle choices may help ease some of the symptoms of perimenopause as well as promote good health as you age. These choices include:
- Good nutrition. Because your risk of osteoporosis and heart disease increases at this time, a healthy diet is more important than ever. Adopt a low-fat, high-fiber diet that's rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Add calcium-rich foods or take a calcium supplement that also supplies vitamin D, which helps your body absorb calcium and helps protect against bone loss. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, which can trigger hot flashes.
- Regular exercise. Regular physical activity helps prevent weight gain, improves your sleep, strengthens your bones and elevates your mood. Try to exercise for 30 minutes or more on most days of the week. Combining walking with strength training, for example, has been shown to help prevent bone loss and fractures in women who have gone through menopause.
- Stress reduction. Practiced regularly, stress-reduction techniques, such as meditation or yoga, can promote relaxation and good health throughout your lifetime, but they may be particularly helpful during the menopausal transition.
In addition to conventional therapies, many women transitioning toward menopause want to know more about complementary and alternative approaches to treating their symptoms. Researchers are looking into these therapies, hoping to determine their safety and effectiveness, but evidence is still often lacking. Be sure to tell your doctor about any complementary or alternative therapy you are using or considering. Here are a few options that show some potential for treating menopausal symptoms while still being fairly safe:
- Black cohosh. This herb extract is used to treat hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms. While various studies show that it does reduce menopause-related symptoms such as hot flashes, design flaws in these studies and variations in the product itself make it difficult to arrive at definite conclusions. Overall, black cohosh appears relatively safe, but avoid it if you have a liver disorder. If you'd like to try it, discuss it with your doctor first.
- Phytoestrogens. These are plant-derived compounds that have estrogen-like properties. There are two main types of phytoestrogens — isoflavones and lignans. Isoflavone supplements are generally extracted from soy or red clover. They may be helpful for mild hot flashes and have a protective effect on your bone density. They may also help decrease blood pressure and low-density lipoprotein (LDL or "bad") cholesterol. Lignans are derived mainly from flaxseed. Fewer studies support their use in treating menopausal symptoms, although they also may help improve cholesterol. Be careful using phyotestrogen supplements if you have an increased risk of a disease or condition that's affected by hormones, such as uterine fibroids, endometriosis, or breast, uterine or ovarian cancer. Also, be cautious if you're already taking a medication that increases your level of estrogen, such as birth control pills, hormone therapy or tamoxifen.
- Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). This is a natural steroid that's produced by your adrenal gland. Some studies show that DHEA supplements help minimize menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, vaginal atrophy, sexual dysfunction and bone loss. But other studies have found no such evidence, and several studies have reported harmful effects from high doses of DHEA, so more research is needed.
Although study results have been mixed, other complementary therapies with low-risk profiles such as acupuncture, yoga and paced breathing have shown some benefit in improving menopausal symptoms. These therapies may help reduce stress and improve psychological well-being, as well. Talk to your doctor about what complementary and alternative therapies may be helpful to you.
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