Cutting The Risks Associated with Menopause

by Garreth Myers

It’s hard to deny that menopause is a trying time in many women’s lives. In addition to almost a lifetime of monthly menstruation and maybe a pregnancy (or two), the female body now does a sharp about turn and proceeds to ‘shut down’ its reproductive functioning. Around the ages of 45 to 55, a woman may stop menstruating and menopause sets in.

The body of a menopausal woman changes drastically to accommodate the fact that she cannot get pregnant anymore. There are a number of physical processes that take place during this transitional period. Apart from the fact the ovaries stop producing eggs, fluctuations in the levels of estrogen and progesterone also occur and this can have a debilitating effect on the body. Symptoms of menopause vary from woman to woman. Some women may complain of symptoms that last for years whereas others may report a sudden change or cessation of their periods. Common menopausal symptoms include heart palpitations, hot flashes, excessive sweating at night, flushed or reddened skin and insomnia. Other symptoms may include loss of libido, frequent headaches and mood swings, joint pain, vaginal dryness and an increase in vaginal infections. More alarmingly, additional problems can also develop such as loss in bone density that can cause osteoporosis. The loss of estrogen leads to changes in the walls of the blood vessels and makes them prone to clotting and narrowing of the arteries. Estrogen fluctuation also results in an increase in LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol thereby increasing the risk of heart disease and strokes.

While menopause cannot be avoided, there are ways to help reduce the intensity of the symptoms and decrease the possibility of health risks such as heart disease and cancer. Hormone therapy has long been lauded as the best way to manage the unpleasant symptoms of menopause. Estrogen or progesterone therapy can help reduce night sweats, hot flashes and mood swings but should only be prescribed after a detailed past medical history is obtained. Keep in mind however, that while Hormone Replacement therapy (HRT) can help reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes, bowel cancer, and osteoporosis it can also increase the chances of breast cancer (if the therapy is taken for too long) or blood clots (if HRT is administered in tablet form). Though these risks are minimal, the benefits of this form of therapy need to be considered on a case-to-case basis. Depending on each individual, the decision to use hormone therapy, for how long and in what form should be decided after taking the risks and benefits into consideration.

Just a decade or so ago, HRT was regarded as the best way to prevent a number of chronic disease associated with menopause. However, after a scare in 2002, when research began to show the health risks of long-term HRT, doctors began cutting down on prescription for hormone therapy to treat menopause. By 2012, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) had recommended against the use of HRT to help prevent chronic diseases associated with menopause. Experts now suggest other preventive measures such as lifestyle and diet changes along with traditional medical therapy to reduce the risk of heart disease, strokes, and breast cancer.

Other alternatives that may help deal with menopause include the use of anti-depressants to keep mood swings, anxiety attacks and depression under control. Blood pressure medication may also help reduce the risk of stroke, blood clots and heart disease. Apart from this, doctors and experts suggest that women should make significant changes to their diet and lifestyle as these can help reduce the symptoms of menopause. Changes such as eating more soy and soy products can help normalize estrogen levels as soy contains estrogen. Avoiding caffeine and alcohol can help reduce insomnia and anxiety. Deep breathing exercises, yoga, meditation and regular exercise can help regulate weight gain and control depression and hot flushes. The long-term risk of heart disease, breast cancer and osteoporosis can be reduced by not smoking, eating a low-fat diet, and taking calcium and vitamin supplements.

References:
  1. Martin KA, et al. Postmenopausal hormone therapy: Benefits and risks. http://www.uptodate.com/index. Accessed June 19, 2012.
  2. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000894.htm

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