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Most women recognize that a hot flash is a sign of menopause, even if they aren’t sure what one feels like. But what about all of those other uncomfortable symptoms such as un expected migraines, or mood swings that cause you to weep uncontrollably at the site of a newborn baby? How can we be sure what we are experiencing is menopause, and what can we do to make ourselves more comfortable?

First of all, know that you are not alone.

Menopause currently affects more than 50 million women in the US. As a result, we are finding more and improved ways to cope with the numerous physical symptoms that can appear during the mid-life transition. This time can also come with a plethora of emotions we aren’t necessarily accustomed to dealing with. The good news is that when a woman enters the second half of her life, the change can be beautiful if we become aware of what is happening to us on a physical, mental and emotional level.

In some ways, menopause feels like a rush to the finish line which can be fun for some and too much pressure for others. It often comes at the same time we are facing huge life challenges such as an empty nest, losing loved ones, shifting marital roles, and/or taking care of elderly parents. Is it any wonder many of us find it overwhelming?

One thing is for certain, if you have any unfinished business that you have been sweeping under the carpet, it’s going to rear its head during menopause. As Dr. Christiane Northrup says in her book, The Wisdom of Menopause, “menopause puts your life under a microscope.” It’s a time when we reflect on our life lived, and decide what we want to do with the rest of it. A time of “getting to know you,” all over again as well as of self care and healing.

Let’s address some of the changes your body might be going through and what can be done about them. The debate remains between traditional hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and the new bio-identical and alternative therapies. The intent here is to just lay out options so you can make an intelligent decision for yourself as well as review ways to find some practical help.

Menopause is a natural process in every woman’s life, but because of the way it is treated like an illness by some doctors, women often feel confused and devalued. On the other hand, many women find a renewed sense of vigor at menopause. This transition brings the chance to accomplish all of those things that we have put on the back burner. It can be a sweet time because women are much smarter at this stage of life and know how to relax and enjoy themselves better.

Being aware of the signs of menopause is crucial in being able to help yourself. Menopause is defined by our cycle’s cessation for at least 12 consecutive months. As a result, in a lot of cases, what women refer to as menopause is really perimenopause.

Perimenopause occurs as our reproductive function begins to wind down. It generally hits in the late 40s or early 50s and lasts for 2 to 4 years. During this time, our body makes less and less estrogen as we lose the ability to become pregnant. You may experience skipped periods or they could even stop for a while and then restart. You may have hot flashes, night sweats, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, weight gain and mood swings. You might begin having trouble sleeping. Vaginal dryness can start to play havoc with your sex life.

Remember, menopause symptoms are caused by an imbalance of female hormones. Symptoms can last a few months, while others may persist for years. Some women are bothered greatly by the symptoms of menopause, while others have very few complaints.

It’s important to note that natural menopause is different from what women who have surgery experience. Women who have had a hysterectomy can undergo what is labeled “surgical menopause” and the symptoms are experienced instantly post surgery. This type of induced menopause can also occur if the ovaries are damaged by chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Here are some general survival tips that you can do right away that will make a significant difference in dealing with your menopause symptoms:

  • Make healthy food choices – eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Avoid fatty, fried voids and drink plenty of water.
  • Get 30 minutes of exercise every day – it doesn’t have to be strenuous! Walking is perfect as are dancing, swimming or cycling.
  • Maintain a healthy weight range – if you do these first two tips, you don’t have to worry about this one.
  • Keep magnesium handy – some women find relief from headaches, palpitations and constipation by taking magnesium.
  • If you smoke, STOP! It’s never too late.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol and excess salt and sugar.
  • Find ways to reduce stress like getting plenty of sleep, keeping your sense of humor and learning how to pamper yourself (this can be the fun part of getting older).

Last but certainly not least, find a doctor that will work with you on whatever treatment you choose. Keep in mind that most western doctors, unless they specialize in endocrinology, did not spend a lot of time studying hormones. Nor can a man know what you are going through because he hasn’t been there. But many doctors are now learning more about integrative medicine and there are lists available of these practitioners across the US.

Some women still believe in and continue to take HRT. With the advent of the recent Women’s Health Initiative report that indicated women taking HRT suffered from more heart attacks, strokes and blood clots, you may want to seek out alternative treatments. Find a good news source to keep up to date on these research studies.

There are plenty of natural options that can soothe symptoms. Read up on bio-identical hormones. I have been able to balance out declining progesterone levels with an over-the-counter cream. Within days I was relieved of debilitating mood swings, irritability and the occasional hot flash. I also fight depression with 5HTP.

There are great forums on the internet where women talk about their issues and what they tried that did and didn’t work. Join an online discussion group so you don’t feel alone. With so many alternatives available to women today, there is no need for any of us to suffer through menopause.

The information in this article is for educational purposes only, and is not intended as medical advice.