Menopause can be a confusing and distressing time for lots of women and this can be made worse if you’re not sure what you can expect to happen to your body both during and afterwards. One of the big questions that most women have? How long symptoms can last. Once your periods have been absent for more than 12 months and you’re deemed to be in menopause, does that mean that all of your menopause symptoms will go away? Here’s what to expect in the run up to and during the menopause.
What happens to your hormones during menopause?
You’ve probably heard that menopause symptoms are heavily linked to hormone changes but what exactly happens to your hormones during the menopause?
Oestrogen is one of the main hormones involved in both reproduction and the menstrual cycle, along with progesterone. As a female, you’re born with eggs in the ovaries, which are released every month as part of the menstrual cycle. Your ovaries also make Oestrogen and progesterone. Once you reach menopause, your ovaries no longer need to release eggs and menstruation isn’t required either.
At the same time, you levels of both hormones fluctuate wildly, before ultimately levels drop. For most women, this happens in the years leading up to the menopause - known as the peri-menopause. The ovaries ultimately stop producing them completely during the menopause itself.
Oestrogen doesn’t just have an impact on your monthly cycle; it can also have wide ranging effects for your whole body. Your brain and nervous system are commonly affected, which is why menopause can bring about so many cognitive and physical symptoms from “brain fog” to hot flashes.
This is exaggerated by the fact that your sex hormones aren’t the only hormones to be affected. Your levels of hormones such as serotonin alter too. This can leave you feeling tired, irritable and prone to mood swings.
Do menopause symptoms disappear when periods stop?
If you’re not one of the lucky women who sail through menopause with very minor symptoms, you’ll no doubt be desperate to find out how long you can expect to have symptoms for after you’re officially in menopause.
There’s no easy answer to this as it can vary from woman to woman. For many women, symptoms are more intense during peri-menopause and start to tail off once you reach menopause and are considered to be “postmenopausal”.
That’s not always the case though and some menopause symptoms can continue for quite a while after your periods stop, including hot flashes and mood swings. This is due to low oestrogen levels, which drop further between the peri-menopause and the menopause phases. This can mean that these symptoms get worse when you hit menopause.
On average, postmenopausal symptoms can last for 4-5 years. The good news? However long they last, they’re not usually as intense as before so they’re likely to have less of an impact on your life compared to during peri-menopause.
Generally speaking, a “sudden” menopause (that is brought on by surgery, for example) can lead to more severe menopause symptoms, compared to a natural menopause that involves hormone changes occurring more gradually.
What can happen post menopause?
Even after symptoms die down completely, there are a few risk factors that can develop after menopause, largely due to lack of oestrogen:
After menopause, you can be at greater risk of developing heart disease as a result of falling oestrogen levels. This makes it important to follow a heart healthy diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats, and to exercise regularly. Being more likely to store fat around your abdomen can also increase your risk factor for heart disease (and other conditions such as type 2 diabetes).
Bone density can also be a problem when you reach menopause. Getting your bone density checked fairly regularly can help to spot early warning signs of osteoporosis. According to studies, as much as a fifth of bone loss can happen in the five years following the menopause. Oestrogen is heavily linked to stronger bones and bone density can become weaker once oestrogen levels drop. Getting plenty of calcium in your diet is an absolute must for helping to keep your bones strong and healthy after the menopause. Vitamin D is also needed for healthy bones and you may want to talk to your health professional about supplementing if you don’t get much from your diet and don’t spend much time outdoors in sunlight. Levels should always be checked by a blood test, before supplementation.