The Stages of Menopause

Last week I wrote about the STRAW guidelines and STRAW + 10, an update based on the review of research done in the 10 years since the original guidelines were published. Because not all of us have reached menopause, defined as one year without menstruating, some of us are interested in what we can learn from the detailed phases! For context, remember that STRAW draws three large phases: reproductive, menopausal transition, and post-menopausal. The recent review and enhancement of the model outlined four specific stages within that “menopausal transition” that has many of us looking for answers. During Late Reproductive Years, your ability to have a child is declining. Your menstrual cycles may be shorter and either lighter or heavier. During the first week of your cycle, the follicle-stimulating hormone may rise more than before as your body works to continue reproduction. The length of this stage varies a lot, but it could be as much as nine years. Perimenopause officially begins with the second stage, Early Menopausal Transition. During this stage, you’ll see more unpredictability in your menstrual cycle—you may even think it’s not predictable at all! And because your body is producing more estrogen but less progesterone, you may see an increase in PMS symptoms like irritability and bloating. This stage can last four years or longer. Late Menopausal Transition is the second “half” of perimenopause (I put “half” in quote marks because it’s probably shorter than the first stage—a year up to a couple of years). This is when you’re likely to experience the “typical” symptoms associated with menopause: hot flashes, difficulty sleeping, and mood changes. You may not have a period for a couple of months. At this point, the big trend line for hormones is a decline, but both estrogen and progesterone production can vary wildly from day to day. Finally, you reach Early Postmenopause. Again, this is marked by a full year without a period. If you haven’t already experienced hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms, you may now, or they may be worse for a while. Because estrogen and progesterone levels are very low, this is when other symptoms become apparent, like vaginal dryness or thinning of vaginal tissues. As I’ve said before, there’s no clear roadmap that’s infallible for every one of us. I understand, though, the desire to understand what’s happening and to try to predict what lies ahead. I have a friend who’s 56 and still, by the STRAW + 10 stage definition, in “late reproductive years”; by the guidelines, she could be 69 before she reaches menopause. Can that be true? My medical equipment doesn’t include a crystal ball! But not having a precise roadmap doesn’t change my recommendation to all of us: Learn about what lies ahead, whether it happens fast or slow, early or late. Do what you can to compensate for or manage the changes in your body as you’re aware of them, just as you pick up your reading glasses more often when the menus are hard to read. And, because it’s true that as hormones decline, we “use it or lose it,” stay as sexually active as you choose to be. It’s good for your health, it’s good for your relationship, and it’s good for your self-image.

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