Perimenopause: Leading up to menopause
I was having my haircut on a cool spring day. The door of the salon was open and we were listening to the chatter from the sidewalk while we gabbed. All of a sudden, this heat rose through me out of nowhere. I was instantly broiling. I stopped talking mid-sentence. My cheeks were flushed and I could feel my scalp perspiring. My beloved long-time stylist asked if I was okay. I stammered, "I have no idea what is happening."
My stylist looked at me quizzically and asked, "Honey, how old are you?" I told him, and in a very gentle and kind voice he said, "Honey, I think you are having a hot flash." He went to the sink immediately, doused two towels with cool water, rang them out, put one around my neck and gave me the other for my face. Then he continued precision cutting my hair.
Of course they were hot flashes. Of course. Little pieces fell into place. Of course. I was so embarrassed, yet was so relieved that, one, I finally knew what these episodes were (it wasn't the first), and, two, I had been with someone who knew what to do.
What is perimenopause anyway?
Perimenopause is the time before actual menopause when a woman's ovaries start to produce less and less estrogen. It can last from a few months to up to 10 years. It's a transitional - and sometimes unpredictable - phase in a woman's reproductive life. The frequency and number of perimenopausal symptoms vary by woman: you can have hot flashes, breast tenderness, worsening PMS, decreased sex drive, fatigue, irregular periods, urinary leakage and urgency, mood swings, vaginal dryness, and difficulty sleeping.
So how to you determine if it is perimenopause or something else? Definitely talk to your doctor about your symptoms. You doctor can offer a blood test, or a series of them, As menstrual periods can change quite a bit, your doctor can help to determine if changes in your cycle are normal.
Also talk to your mother and/or older sisters who may have reached this transition. If your mother went through menopause at an early age, you might, too. From my conversations with family, I learned I am right on target for menopause at an age similar to my mother and sister - and for a long perimenopause leading up to it.
Mitigate the symptoms
The intensity of symptoms varies for everyone, so treatment to mitigate symptoms will vary from woman to woman, too. While some women find the most help from hormonally based treatments, others find homeopathic or alternative therapies useful. Sometimes mood swings can be so extreme that an anti-depressant or other type of medication would be helpful.
Other things you can do to help manage symptoms include getting regular exercise, getting more consistent about your sleep routine, maintaining a healthy weight and diet, decreasing alcohol consumption, increasing fluid intake, using multi-vitamins or specific vitamin combinations, and other generally healthy behaviors.
The emotional side of things
Perimenopause seems to be one of those things that sneaks up on you. All of a sudden, it's there - whether you are ready or not. Even though you may have long since accepted that your childbearing years are over, there's a big difference between you making that decision and your body making that decision for you. It can be a shock, really, that even if you changed your mind, your body's ability to bear a child is coming to a close. Add some of the very real physical symptoms of this time in your life, and it can be a rude awakening. (Remember, though, that until you actually reach menopause, pregnancy is still possible.) Give yourself some space and time to accept this.
Whether or not it's perimenopause now, it's coming. The first hot flashes may still be a shock, but a little awareness and even some preparation can go a long way. But keep plenty of cool washcloths handy anyway.