Many of the women I see in my office would like a black and white answer: Where, exactly, are they on the path to menopause? What, exactly, can they expect? Unfortunately, I can’t really give them a solid answer, and here’s why.
Perimenopause—that period (no pun intended!) between regular menstruation and menopause—isn’t a steady progression. It’s more like two steps forward, one step back. Sometimes, one step forward, two steps back. You may have some signs along the way, like moodiness, insomnia, irregular periods, hot flashes, lack of interest in sex, or vaginal dryness.
Sometimes FSH tests are used to help fill in the picture, providing one more data point. I don’t often recommend these tests, though, because although the tests are accurate at that moment on that day, they can be wildly misleading—unless you’re not yet in perimenopause (in which case the test can point to other issues) or you’re in menopause—which you already know because you’re not menstruating.
Here’s what’s happening with FSH (follicle stimulating hormone): The pituitary gland sends out FSH to tell the ovaries to make estrogen, which helps eggs grow (stimulating follicles!) and thickens the uterine lining. The pituitary gland acts like a thermostat: if it senses estrogen production is low, it “kicks on” and releases more FSH.
But as I said, the path to menopause is not a straight one; most women have erratic periods before menopause. So even if you are 52 and have every other symptom of perimenopause, if you take the test during the one time in six months you happened to ovulate, your FSH levels would suggest you’re not menopausal. Lifestyle-related factors like stress and smoking also affect FSH levels, making them even less helpful.
Check out the graphic to see the kind of unpredictability that’s typical. The first graph shows regular hormonal fluctuation when you’re having regular cycles. The second graph shows how wildly all four hormones may vary over six months. The last graph shows that a consistently high level of FSH accompanies menopause. But, again, if you’re not having periods, you don’t need a hormone test—either from a doctor or an at-home saliva test—to tell you you’re menopausal. (If, by the way, you’ve had a hysterectomy, endometrial ablation, or another procedure that’s eliminated periods but you still have ovaries, you have the same unpredictability in hormone levels. Charting your symptoms for a few months may be the most helpful approach.) I understand that the ambiguity of perimenopause bothers some women. As a physician with a pretty good understanding of all the pieces at play, maybe I find it too easy to recommend that women tune in to their bodies and take it a month at a time. I'd love to hear from women who've found ways to be "in the moment" with The Change!
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.