You also mention weight gain. I hope you know you’re not alone! We had a series on this topic this summer that may be of interest to you: an overview of the reality, how you can respond with diet alterations, and how exercise can play a part.
If you need a provider who focuses on menopausal treatments you can find one on the NAMS website (North American Menopause Society) at this link. Enter your zip code and a list of nearby providers will be listed.
You mention joint pain, weight gain, and food cravings in addition to hot flashes as symptoms of menopause. Menopause has such a variety of symptoms, depending on each individual. Lifestyle matters more; exercise is more important; adequate sleep and good nutrition—all of these have a greater impact to quality of life now than they did previously.
I wish I could tell you there is good data suggesting vitamins have a favorable impact on menopausal symptoms, but the trials looking at the specific supplements you mention and others suggest no benefit greater than placebo. But, hey, placebo has about a 30-percent response rate in any trial, so there is certainly no harm in using them. They provide some general vitamins that will not be harmful, and may help if you aren’t getting them in your diet.
The symptoms you mention could all potentially benefit from hormone therapy (HT). The loss of estrogen is huge for most women, and the loss of progesterone to some extent as well. For many women the only way to address symptoms adequately is to consider HT. More and more data suggests that HT is beneficial for women specifically with weight gain; that was a lead article in one of my journals just this week.
It’s a complicated journey that is nuanced, and each woman needs to assess her own symptoms and goals and determine the best approach to managing through menopause. It’s difficult to address all of the treatment options in a single Q&A. You might find the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) website helpful: menopause.org. They cover many issues related to menopause.
In a sense, the most “natural” replacement for lost estrogen is estrogen, which is a prescription product (like Premarin or Estrace vaginal cream, Estring, Vagifem, or the non-estrogen Osphena).
If, for a number of reasons, you prefer not to take that path, the next-best option is to maintain vaginal tissues by using a moisturizer regularly, two to three times a week. Moisturizers are designed to bring more moisture--no surprise--into the vagina to prevent the progressive dryness that occurs in menopause with the absence of estrogen.
One more option might be an oral nutritional supplement, Stronvivo, which some research shows improves vaginal moisture. It does this by improving blood flow, and that circulation also supports tissue health.
You say that your wife suffers from lichen sclerosus, a condition that creates skin tissue that is thinner than usual (and is a higher risk for postmenopausal women). Warming oils and lubricants, unfortunately, create discomfort rather than arousal for her. I'm not aware of an option in that category that would work for her, since the ingredients that make them effective--usually something minty or peppery--will almost certainly cause an adverse reaction.
Plain lubricants won't cause that reaction; those we include in our product collection should be well-tolerated by lichen sclerosus patients.
There are a couple of other options you and your wife could explore for arousal. The use of testosterone has been beneficial for 50 to 60 percent of the women in my practice who've tried it. Testosterone is by prescription and off-label for women, which means a discussion with her health care provider is required.
Other prescription options include localized estrogen, Osphena, or Intrarosa (a recently available FDA-approved choice). Any of these would increase blood supply by "estrogenizing" the genitals, which can improve arousal and orgasm as well.
Congratulations on undertaking this exploration together! Good communication and mutual support are so important to shared intimacy.
As if the hot flashes, mood swings, night sweats, and sexual challenges weren’t enough, now you can add weight gain to the menopausal whammy.
That’s right. In case you hadn’t noticed (fat chance!), women tend to gain about 10-15 pounds on average—from 3 to 30 pounds is the typical range—during and after menopause. And because our entire metabolic mechanism is different now, that weight is blessedly hard to take off.
“I feel like my body has betrayed me,” said one of my patients.
“Prior to menopause I was able to maintain a weight loss of 70 pounds. I see that 25 pounds have come back and nothing I seem to do is helping,” said another woman.
Weight gain during menopause isn’t totally related to “the change.” Lifestyle, genetics, and, yes, hormonal fluctuation all play their respective roles, for better or for worse. But the weight goes on, and the way that happens is different from weight gain in previous years.
So, if you’re accustomed to losing weight easily—or not gaining it in the first place—this development may come as a puzzling and unpleasant surprise. And if you struggle with your weight, be forewarned: The deck is about to be reshuffled, and that struggle may become harder yet. The single bright spot is that you’re in a very big boat with a lot of other menopausal gals—up to 90 percent of us gain weight during this transition, according to this article.
Menopausal weight gain is different because:
In order to effectively tackle this unsettling turn of events and to grasp why the things you did before aren’t working now, it helps to understand the underlying mechanism.
For one thing, muscle mass, which is an efficient burner of calories, slowly decreases with age. Now, even your resting metabolism (when you aren’t active) is lower. Adding insult to injury, loss of estrogen compounds this effect. Studies of lab animals suggest that estrogen has a regulating effect on appetite and weight gain. Animals with lower estrogen levels ate more and moved less.
When the ovaries stop producing estrogen, fat cells tend to take over. Ovaries produce estradiol, a “premium” estrogen; fat cells produce estrone, which is a weak, inefficient estrogen. This hormonal change increases the body’s efficiency at depositing fat, especially, we find, around the abdomen.
A recent study confirmed that certain proteins and enzymes that enable cells to store more fat and to burn it less become more active in post-menopausal women. “Taken together, these changes in bodily processes may be more than a little surprising—and upsetting—for women who previously had little trouble managing their weight,” comments Sylvia Santosa, assistant professor in Concordia University’s Department of Exercise Science in this article.
You got that right, sister.
Menopause packs a couple more weight-inducing changes: insomnia and stress. When you don’t sleep well (and who does, what with night sweats and cratering mood swings?), levels of ghrelin, known as the “hunger hormone,” rise and levels of the “fullness hormone” leptin drop. That’s why you get the nighttime munchies. A study of over 1,000 volunteers (The Wisconsin Sleep Cohort Study) found that those who slept less had higher ghrelin levels and lower leptin levels—and also had a higher body mass index (BMI), i.e. they weighed more.
And we all know what stress eating does to our waistline.
So, what’s a stressed-out, sleep-deprived, menopausal woman to do? It’s a challenge, without doubt. However, when we understand the mechanism—what’s happening to our bodies on a biological level—then we realize that doing what we did before isn’t going to work. We need to change up the paradigm if we want to control our weight and maintain a healthy, active post-menopausal lifestyle.
This paradigm shift involves a different approach to both diet (Note: I did not say dieting!) and exercise. No magic pharma pill or painless regimen. Still, we can regain control of the bathroom scales despite the slings and arrows of our slowing metabolism and estrogen-storing fat cells. And honestly, we might end up with better health habits than we ever had before.
Estrogen, as you know all too well these days, does a lot of good things for your body and your mood. Maybe you didn’t know that it also does a lot of good things for your brain.
“In preclinical studies, estrogen was shown to improve energy production, reduce oxidative stress, increase brain cell survival during damage, enhance the release of protective chemicals, and improve memory,” according to this recent article.
So, you may ask, what the heck happens in the brain when estrogen disappears after menopause? Researchers are also asking if estrogen, or the lack thereof, plays a role in Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia, which disproportionately affects women.
Neither menopause nor lack of estrogen is directly linked to dementia, or specifically, to Alzheimer’s disease. No smoking gun or causal connection has been found despite numerous studies comparing women who have taken estrogen with those who haven’t.
“…Evidence from cohorts in Melbourne, the United Kingdom, and rural Taiwan suggests that the natural menopausal transition probably does not have important effects on episodic memory or most other cognitive skills,” states this National Institutes of Health (NIH) article.
So, what does happen in the brain when estrogen production declines after menopause? Are all those “senior moments” really the result of our estrogen-starved gray matter? Does estrogen replacement therapy (ERT), have any effect on brain health? Finally, although no treatment exists for Alzheimer’s disease, could estrogen play a role in preventing or delaying its onset?
While these are all tantalizing questions that researchers are beginning to tease apart, no actionable answers are forthcoming, yet. Frankly, research results are all over the map. You may remember the groundbreaking 2002 Women’s Health Initiative that was responsible for a seismic shift in the routine use of estrogen therapy after concerns about risk of breast cancer and heart disease--some of which were misunderstood or at least miscommunicated.
Less well-known was that a cognitive component to that study (the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study) found that the risk of dementia increased, sometimes dramatically, for women over 65 who were on hormone therapy.
However, several recent studies suggest that beginning hormone therapy at a younger age may have a protective effect on the brain. A recent study in Norway and another in Finland determined that taking estrogen before and during menopause, resulted in increased brain volume, especially in the hippocampus, which is the area associated with memory and sense of place and which is most disrupted by Alzheimer’s disease.
These conflicting results have led to the “critical window” hypothesis: that at some points in the menopausal transition, estrogen may help preserve brain function while at others, not so much.
“Most researchers seem to accept the idea that a critical window exists during which estrogen treatment is most likely to be beneficial. ‘The question is, when is that window open, and when is it closed?’ ” said Roberta Diaz-Brinton.
Diaz-Brinton suggested that healthy cells may be more likely to respond positively to estrogen but older or “sickly” cells may not. This is the “healthy cell bias of estrogen.”
Frustratingly, for those of us approaching menopause, the data continues to roll in and not much is consistent enough to define a course of action. Obviously, a bunch of variables confound the picture: how the estrogen is administered (whether by pill or patch); what kind of estrogen is administered (bioidentical, equine, or some other formula); certain genetic factors; the combined effect of estrogen plus progestogen (for women who still have a uterus); plus all the other variables of country, culture, health, and lifestyle.
The current position of the NIH, which can be expected to take a conservative position, is that “it is unknown whether estrogen effects on Alzheimer risk are modified by age of use or by use during a critical window close to the time of menopause.”
Probably the most reasonable course of action is to continue to follow general medical guidelines to take the smallest dosage of estrogen for the shortest period of time to relieve menopausal symptoms. According to the most recent studies, that’s when it might do your brain the most good. Beyond the menopausal years, evidence suggests that it either has no effect or it has a negative one.
And, for our daughters’ sake if not our own, let’s continue to speak out about the importance of research in women’s as well as men’s health. We are not the same.
You say you’re using a vaginal estrogen cream, and using Kegel weights with an aloe vera gel. You’ve had two yeast infections since you started using both.
If you are fairly new to using estrogen vaginal cream, it may be the cream that is causing the vaginal yeast infections. The estrogen cream lowers your vaginal pH (and a lower pH is a healthier status; here’s a summary of healthy pH levels) over the first 8-12 weeks of use. The transition from the higher pH (atrophic) to the lower pH puts women at risk for yeast infections. This should not persist, and in the end the estrogen cream is likely to be beneficial to you.
You say you’ve had a period and some breast tenderness after three years of hormone therapy (HT). I hope you’ll make an appointment with your health care provider: Any bleeding that occurs postmenopausally (after 12 months with no bleeding) is considered “abnormal uterine bleeding” and it really deserves evaluation. This is true whether or not you’re on HT.
The evaluation is usually an endometrial biopsy, a quite simple office procedure. Women on hormone therapy are at very low risk of developing uterine cancer, but we still want to make sure the proper evaluation takes place. Usually the biopsy is completely benign or normal, and we aren’t able to explain why it happened.
When the bleeding is accompanied by other associated symptoms, like breast soreness, it is tempting to attribute it to a “last hurrah” or one last period, but that is unlikely. Any missed doses of the HT or changes in dosing can occasionally contribute to some breakthrough bleeding. The most likely scenario is that the hormone therapy contributed to the symptoms of the breast soreness and the bleeding, but without any changes it’s hard to explain why that might have happened now, three years after menopause.
Again, evaluation usually confirms that all is normal, but it’s worth making the effort to be sure!
You say you’re hoping to enjoy intercourse again after a five-year hiatus, but that you experienced some discomfort with your last gynecological exam. The prescriptions offered to you (which I assume were localized estrogen) are not in your budget, so you’re wondering about other options.
A vaginal moisturizer, used regularly, can help you regain some tissue elasticity. Any of the moisturizers we offer might be an option for you; they’re intended to be used regularly, from daily to several times a week.
Along with thinner and fragile tissues, in menopause, without estrogen and without sexual activity, the vagina will become more narrow and shortened. You may need the gentle stretching of dilators to help restore vaginal capacity.
I’m hopeful that, with some effort and regular attention, you can restore vaginal health to resume pleasurable intercourse!
The symptoms you describe--moodiness, depression and anxiety, hot flashes, sleep interruptions, less sensitivity in nipples and clitoris--are all consistent with stopping the hormone therapy (HT). Sensitivity to the effects of hormones varies among women, and you’re definitely in the “responder” category!
You mention that you discontinued the HT because of concerns for long-term health. It’s important to consider the form of HT you’re using: The Combipatch that you were using is a transdermal estrogen (and progestin) delivery method, and that method has significantly less risk for stroke or thrombosis. If estrogen is taken orally, it is metabolized through the liver, which increases a blood clotting factor and puts women at a slightly greater risk for stroke and blood clots. Transdermal (through the skin) delivery doesn’t pose the same risk, because it bypasses the liver metabolism and enters the bloodstream directly.
You’re in your 50s, fit, and low risk: You’re a perfect person to consider continuation of HT for all the reasons you mention. It sounds like HT definitely improves your quality of life, which is to me a determinative factor. We don’t really have a clear time frame in which we know that HT starts to pose additional risk.