When menopause occurs before the age of 40 it’s considered early or premature menopause. Affecting almost one in 10 women, early menopause can be be emotionally heartbreaking for those looking to start or continue their family.
Reasons for early menopause
Premature menopause can arise for a number of reasons including:
- The sudden stopping of periods (primary ovarian insufficiency)
- Surgery – when ovaries are removed surgically (oophorectomy)
- Chemotherapy or radiotherapy treatment for cancer
- Lifestyle factors – smoking, body mass index
- Chromosome defects
- Autoimmune diseases
- Metabolic disorders
- Infection such as the mumps
Symptoms of early menopause
Symptoms of early menopause are essentially the same as those experienced during expected menopause (around the age of 51-52), however they are often more severe. These symptoms include:
- Period irregularity
- The ceasing of periods
- Inability to get pregnant
- Hot flashes
- Increased anxiousness
- Breast tenderness
- Premenstrual pain
- Vaginal dryness
- Decreased sex drive
Early menopause concerns
As well as suffering more extreme symptoms, women who go through premature menopause have a higher risk of certain health problems, such as heart disease and osteoporosis. This is because they don’t have the protective benefits of oestrogen.
Women who experience early menopause are also at increased vulnerability for intense, complex emotional responses, particularly if the diagnosis has been brought on through another serious illness. Depression and anxiety is common in such cases.
Early menopause and fertility
Early menopause is particularly difficult for women who have not yet started or completed their families due to the low chance of falling pregnant. That said, IVF using donor eggs is an option some women with premature menopause choose to explore. If you are at all concerned about your fertility, talk to a fertility specialist about your options.
Coping with early menopause
For some women diagnosed with early menopause it’s more than just uncomfortable symptoms and increased risk of health issues. Early menopause for some is the saying goodbye to youth – the symbol that signifies you are ageing. Many women describe suddenly feeling older and “less sexy” and even those not wanting any or more children can feel robbed of their ability to naturally conceive. Common emotions include anger, confusion, frustration and numbness, as if you can’t quite believe what’s happening to your body.
During menopause your emotions are already affected by the shifting hormones in your body. Add to that, the reality of your condition, and your emotions are affected even more. As such, your doctor may suggest psychiatric or hormonal treatment once your periods end.
The fact is, many women feel a profound loss when diagnosed with early menopause and this loss is something you need to grieve. The good news is that with time you can feel like you again and the thoughts of “old age” and “less womanly” will melt away. This process of acceptance will eventually lead you to becoming stronger and more womanly than ever before. Once you accept that you can’t reverse menopause, you will learn that you have the power to change and adjust, and emerge intact.
Tips for coping emotionally
Whatever your age or situation, dealing with the stresses of early menopause constructively will make managing menopause and its symptoms a gentler experience. Suggestions to help you cope emotionally with stresses brought on by menopause include:
A study from the University of Pennsylvania found that meditating for just 12 minutes a day improved the moods and memory of Marines during deployment. If they can get through a warzone with meditation, you can get through menopause! Calming your heart secretes a hormone called atrial natriuretic peptide, which affects the release of the stress hormone cortisol. In other words, learn how to control your heart and start controlling how your body responds to stress.
A study from Temple University found that a brisk walking routine can reduce a variety of psychological symptoms such as stress, anxiety and depression. The study’s author said, “physical activity can help throughout the menopause transition and afterwards”.
3. Reach out
If you feel you are stressed and not coping with your diagnosis, ask for help or reach out to a friend. Instead of the “fight or flight” response that men have, most women are inclined to “tend and befriend” and establishing a social support network can make you feel much better about the situation. Psychological counselling and support groups are available all over the country, so consider using them.
4. Take stock
Think about the things that matter most to you and look at menopause as the start of a new chapter. Make a plan to pursue at least one goal you have not yet accomplished, take up a new hobby, or get rid of anything you feel is damaging in your life.
Talk to your medical provider about any medications that may help you cope with your changing body. Treatment for anxiety and stress can include: selective serotonin inhibitors (SSRIs) or antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, mild sedatives. While all of these medications may be effective at relieving stress and anxiety, they should only be used in extreme circumstances as they all pose the risk of adverse side effects.
Staying well hydrated during menopause is important and by eating more complex carbohydrates, you can increase the serotonin levels in your brain. Eat smaller, more frequent meals and increase your intake of tryptophan, found in milk, bananas, soy, nuts, peanut butter and oats. Also limit your caffeine intake which can increase anxiety.
It’s important to see early menopause as another part of life. Relationships, jobs, health, families, friends – they all change and there’s nothing we can do about that. We just have to accept that change is happening and that it’s simply a part of living. This doesn’t always make acceptance easier, but it is a healthy reminder that you haven’t failed, nor has your body. You’re simply embarking on your next journey. Remember, within your power to handle transition comes strength.