Secrets for Our Daughters (and When to Fire Your Doctor)

The United State of Women “Healthy Women. Healthy Families.” summit in Washington D.C. didn’t focus specifically on perimenopausal and menopausal women, yet my conversation with attendee Marta Hill Gray naturally circled around to the topic of women, aging, and sexuality.

Marta, a women’s health advocate, worked behind the scenes to promote “pink viagra,” and she continues to be an insightful observer of women’s issues.

What have you observed about society’s view of women beyond the childbearing years?

As women age, society says we are supposed to suck it up and get on with it, but that doesn’t mean we are healthy and actually taking care of ourselves. For so many women, when you get to menopause no one has taken time to tell us what to expect.

After attending the event, what advice do you have for my readers?

Talk to daughters, sisters, nieces, and friends about the changes that are coming.Younger women need to know the time will come to a time when their bodies are going to change. As older women, we need to talk to daughters, sisters, nieces, and friends about the changes that are coming. Let them know that once you have your babies, it’s not over. We should really mentor them in being diligent about their bodies, so they ask better questions and they’re smarter than we were.  

Your mom may tell you about having their period but not about menopause… It is a big deal. And women need to know there are doctors like you, menopause providers, who can make it manageable, who can give you treatment options and care and guidance so you move through it gracefully.

Not all doctors are comfortable with women in menopause.

That’s true. And if you don’t have health care providers you can talk to you, you need to fire them and find one you can talk to. Yes, you can fire your doctor, it’s all right! Just because they wear a white lab coat doesn’t mean they know how to help. You should be able to comfortably discuss any topic including bowel movements, urine, sexuality … all of that is important.

There seems to be more openness to talking about sexuality and sexual health today than when I began my practice.

I agree. The fact is that we’re living longer, we look better, and we are more involved than previous generations of women our age.

We're living longer and are more involved than previous generations.It is such a life-affirming thing to be a sexual creature, yet so many women have painful intercourse, and then they shut down, which can hurt relationships. I think that women going through menopause should definitely be able to depend on their health care provider to give them information and tools to overcome the challenges. It is different for everybody and, just as it is when you’re younger, it is very personal. A lot of women don’t know they have options and choices.

Women’s health and women’s sexual health isn’t behind the curtain anymore. It is being forced out on the table partially by the fact that our world is smaller and we know so much about girls as slaves, genital cutting, sexually transmitted diseases... everything is discussed and it will continue to be so discussed because these are facts. It’s an open discussion now, and the word vagina can be said. Women make up 50 percent of the population, and we are full citizens.

Younger women are leading the charge and they will not be denied. They have no fear. I think it’s fantastic, and it’s going to get better and better.

A Very Happy, Non-Hormonal Holiday to You!

I recently read a book review recounting one woman’s harrowing passage through perimenopause. The Madwoman in the Volvo is a graphic and humorous account of emotional upheaval, distress, seismic life changes, and finally, the author is cast gently upon the slightly less fraught shores of menopause. Perhaps sadder (or more thoughtful), probably wiser, and definitely optimistic about the future.

So, in honor of this season, which is guaranteed to nudge all but the most stoic among us off the ledge, I have two messages for all of us hot-flashing, sleep-deprived, hormonal gals.

If you feel as though you’re losing your mind, you aren’t alone. Hear that? You are not alone. In fact, you are legion—there are many of us.

Google “crazy menopausal women.” Read the forums. Check out the Fourteen Best Menopause Health Blogs of the Year. Take heart. You’re in abundant, albeit somewhat unhinged, company.

There are, in fact, a silent (or, more likely, howling) army of women who feel just like you. I recall the patient who was referred to me by her new therapist, who had refused to treat her until she got her hormones straightened out. (Previously, she had been told to see a therapist by the police.)

I recall a close friend, the very picture of motherly benevolence, who hissed in my ear, “If that kid doesn’t stop yammering at me, I’m going to tape her mouth shut.” She was referring to her sweet but talkative adolescent daughter. I was shocked. A few years later, I was feeling like that myself.

You can assess your lifestyle and experiment with healthy change. You can eat kale and take vitamin B12 and black cohosh. You can meditate and do yoga. You can stop smoking and reduce your alcohol and caffeine intake. You will feel healthier, and your symptoms might become more tolerable. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a big advocate of healthy lifestyle choices.

But, if you, like many other women, continue to feel like you’re hanging on to sanity with bloodied fingernails, and those you love are suffering right along with you, by all means see your doctor and find out what pharmaceutical options might help you.

Read this article, written by a woman with access to all the current research on hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and an enviable journalistic pedigree. Here’s what she has to say about her decision to go back on HRT:

I would like to be able to tell you that I weighed these matters thoughtfully, comparing my risks and benefits and bearing in mind the daunting influence of a drug industry that stands to profit handsomely from the medicalizing of normal female aging. But that would be nonsense, of course. I was too crazy. I went straight to the pharmacy and took everything they gave me.

Perimenopause—the hormonal roller-coaster years preceding menopause—can be a long and bumpy ride. It usually begins somewhere between 45 and 55, but can start much earlier. These are the years of unpredictably cresting and crashing hormones, when the crazies come out in all their glory. This stage can last from 2 to 10 years.

Menopause officially beings in the thirteenth month (one year) after your last period.

Which doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods. Many women still have hot flashes and emotional turbulence. But life should slowly settle down as your body adjusts to its new, post-hormonal self.

So, that’s my second holiday message: You aren’t crazy, and eventually you’ll be okay. Wiser, maybe more self-actualized, and really, really okay.

With that, a very happy holiday from MiddlesexMD to you. And as the Madwoman in the Volvo said, “Have some cake, for God’s sake.”

“Are Those What I Think They Are?”

I’m a gynecologist. I talk about sex and body parts all day long, and I have for 25 years.

I guess I take a certain amount of openness for granted. I see intimacy as a cherished part of relationships, and sexuality as a natural part of overall health. So I’m a little surprised more people aren’t talking about both!

That the conversations aren’t happening was apparent last week, when I spent a few days in the exhibit hall at a major conference for nurse practitioners. Every time I turned around, another woman (mostly, but also some men) was saying, I’m so glad you’re here! I get questions all the time, and I don’t know where to go for information or where to send women for resources.

At our MiddlesexMD exhibit, we had a cross section of our products on display, and found plenty of curiosity about some of them. Kegel tools probably led in prompting conversations, with vaginal dilators following. One woman nurse practitioner brought her husband by to show him, up close and personal, the first vibrators he’d ever seen.

There were a few gasps and a little blushing, but once our conversations got underway, I’m hopeful that these health care providers began to see our “toys” in a different light. Because yes, there are symptoms anyone in perimenopause or menopause can recognize: vaginal dryness and less sensation. And yes, many of us see intimacy as a part of our relationships that we’d hate to lose. And most definitely yes, there are things we can do—products we can use—that help us to compensate for changes and maintain (and even regain) our sexual health.

So, to the woman who came to our exhibit saying, “Are those what I think they are,” the answer is yes. And no.

Beyond being “sex toys,” these products are also tools for increasing blood circulation, strengthening muscles, and nourishing tissues. By keeping sex not only possible but satisfying, they’re reducing stress, improving cardiac health, combating pain and depression, and burning calories. If we think about them in that light—practically as medical devices—perhaps we’ll be more open-minded about adding to our repertoire.

There was plenty that was encouraging, even energizing, about my conversations last week. There are thousands of nurse practitioners—and other health care professionals—who are willing and prepared to talk. Every woman can help by initiating the conversation when they have concerns about intimacy or their sexual health.

You don’t have to talk about sex every day, as I do. Just don’t be shy when it matters.

Q: Remind me about healthy pH levels.

You ask about vaginal pH (the abbreviation stands for 'potential hydrogen,' a measurement of acidity). The scale for measuring pH is from 0 to 14, with a lower number meaning more acidic and a higher number meaning more basic. The normal pH of the vagina is 3.5 to 5.0. Being on the acidic end of the range means that the environment is unfriendly for unwelcome bacteria--and therefore more resistant to bacterial infections. There are a plethora of bacteria that belong in your vagina, the most predominant being lactobacilli. They produce lactic acid, resulting in an acidic pH and vaginal health.

A number of things can disrupt normal pH. Semen has a pH of 7 to 8, so after intercourse there will be a brief change in pH. Menstrual periods, with blood with a pH of 7.4, will also disrupt normal pH levels, and not so briefly; susceptibility to bacterial infections rises during menstruation. Douching can also disrupt healthy pH by flushing the healthy bacteria.

Perimenopause and menopause are major disruptors of pH, because the decline of estrogen causes the pH to rise (less acidic, more basic). This change is not brief at all; instead, it's the new normal. Not all women are sensitive to changes in pH, but some are; we're not sure why it varies from woman to woman. The most common infection related to the pH change is bacterial vaginosis (BV), caused by the bacteria gardnerella vaginalis, typically apparent because of discharge and odor. It's inconvenient, but easily treated with an antibiotic.

To avoid that infection or its recurrence, maintain healthy vaginal tissues and a healthy pH, which keeps the lactobacilli around to do their job. Vaginal moisturizers help; avoid douching; and if you have recurring issues, use a condom during intercourse to minimize the effects of semen.

Q: Where does the pendulum of perimenopause symptoms stop?

Given all of the unpredictability of perimenopause, you're wondering which symptoms carry over into menopause and which are resolved: Will you feel your best all the time? Or your worst?

I so wish I could give you a solid answer. The reality is that multiple factors are at play, and your genetics, overall health, and lifestyle will affect how they combine.

What's happening during perimenopause is that your hormone levels fluctuate wildly. Symptoms will vary, from person to person and from week to week. The key issue with the transition into menopause is the drop in estrogen. At the time of that change, in early menopause, many women experience the most symptoms: hot flashes, irritability, sleep issues, memory and concentration, dry skin, joint pain, and weight gain.

Most of those symptoms "resolve," as we medical people say, which means they diminish or go away entirely. The two areas where the loss of estrogen has continued effect for post-menopausal women are bone health and genital tissue (especially what we recognize as vulvar and vaginal dryness).

So back to those other symptoms: If it's irritability you're wondering about, you're likely to come "back to center" on mood, assuming that there aren't other unresolved (or, heaven forbid, new) issues in your life. For memory and concentration, remember that staying mentally engaged and challenged is important for brain health for both men and women!

And, because I'm a physician, I need to reiterate: A healthy diet and regular exercise minimize symptoms at any point.

Baby Blues and Menopausal Depression: Part Two

Many women go through menopause with little more than irritability and hot flashes. In our last blog post, we reviewed research that suggests, though, that if you've experienced postpartum depression or hard-core premenstrual syndrome, you may be at higher risk for depression during perimenopause or menopause. Awareness and perhaps some preparation for this challenging transition might be prudent. It’s like an athlete training for a race. You want to be in shape before you hit the tarmac.

And even if you’ve never had a down day in your life, some commonsense lifestyle adjustments as you approach your “window of vulnerability” might ease the transition. What you absolutely do not want is to be taken by surprise at the intensity of your emotions, as this couple, tragically, was.

Forewarned, as they say, is forearmed.

So here are some suggestions for greater awareness and healthy lifestyle changes that, honestly, are never too late (or early) to adopt:

Nutrition. Eating sensibly is a good foundation for the inevitable metabolic changes that happen during menopause. Go heavy on whole grains and fresh fruits and veggies, ideally from local, organic sources. Lighten up on fats and sugar. Take your vitamins.

If you need to lose some serious weight, now’s the time to get serious about it, before menopausal changes really kick in.

Get moving. Lack of social connection and daily activity intensifies a sense of isolation and lethargy. Create a routine of exercise and involvement. Volunteer for a few organizations you believe in or enjoy. Exercise regularly. Get outdoors—don’t just walk from house to car. Surround yourself with healthy activity and people you like.

Explore treatment options. Some studies indicate that, for perimenopausal depression, hormone replacement therapy, sometimes in conjunction with antidepressants, can ease the mood swings, hot flashes, and insomnia, especially during the early stages of menopause.

St. John’s wort may also relieve mood swings and anxiety during menopause. (But don’t take any natural remedy without talking to your doctor first.)

Build your network. It’s comforting to know that people you trust have your back. And it’s a lot easier to find helpers before you’re in the thick of things.

Maybe find a therapist you like. Maintain connections with good friends.

And if you find yourself overwhelmed with feelings of unworthiness, or are unable to get out of bed or to function normally, for heaven’s sake, tap into that support system. Call your therapist or doctor. Call someone you love.

Menopausal depression is treatable and usually resolves itself once you’re through the change. Then you’ll be back to your sunny, even-keeled self.

In the meantime, it’s just your hormones talking.

Baby Blues and Menopausal Depression: A Connection?

We’ve talked about depression during menopause. It’s a common, joy-sapping beastie that rears its ugly head during this time of whacked-out hormones and middle-age adjustment.

After all, what with hot flashes, insomnia, loss of libido, mood swings, who wouldn’t feel depressed?

While we may not exactly sail through menopause, most of us make it through “the change” relatively unscathed. But for a few, the hormonal fluctuations that may precede menopause by a number of years is part of a larger picture—sort of a déjà vu experience that we ought to be aware of so as not to be blindsided by it.

Episodes of depression are common, and they are more common for women than for men. About 20 percent of women—one in five—will experience major depression at some point in life, and that’s twice the rate at which men become depressed, according to this report in “Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience.”

Why this happens is unclear, but one obvious culprit is the normal hormonal fluctuations that occur at predictable points in a woman’s life: puberty, menstrual cycles, childbirth, and menopause. Some women appear to be more sensitive to these hormonal changes, and depression—sometimes crippling in its intensity—can result. These predictable points at which female hormones are on a roller coaster may be considered “windows of vulnerability.”

Perimenopause—the years immediately preceding active menopause—seems to be the point at which depressive episodes are more frequent. Even before a woman’s menstrual cycle is changing, her hormones may be dancing the rhumba. Perimenopause can last for five years, on average, and 95 percent of women enter it between the ages of 39 and 51.

“These periods are not only marked by extreme hormone variations but may also be accompanied by the occurrence of significant life stressors and changes in personal, family, and professional responsibilities,” writes researcher Claudio Soares in this report for Biomedcentral.com.

The thing to be aware of, however, is that the biggest predictor of perimenopausal or menopausal depression is a prior episode of depression. And the “reproductive life cycle event” most strongly correlated with perimenopausal depression is postpartum depression—the “baby blues.”

“We also found, however, a correlation between perimenopausal mood ratings and ratings at other reproductive cycle events, especially between perimenopausal depression and postpartum depression,” write the authors of this study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. “This suggests that there may be a subgroup of women who have a specific vulnerability to developing reproductive cycle event–related depression.”

Other well-regarded studies have confirmed these correlations.

What this means for you, as you head into your final and very challenging “reproductive life cycle event,” is that if you’ve experienced postpartum depression or hard-core premenstrual syndrome, you may be at higher risk for depression during perimenopause or menopause.

In fact, if you’ve had one prior incident of depression, your chances of having another are one in two (fifty percent). If you’ve had three previous depressive episodes, your likelihood of experiencing another is 95 percent, according to The Massachusetts Health Study cited in this report.

But that doesn't mean you're without resources: Forewarned, as they say is forearmed. In our next blog post, we'll talk about what you can do to increase awareness and keep yourself healthy—in body, heart, and mind.

Q: How long can perimenopause go on?

Perimenopause, also called menopause transition, starts with variation in menstrual cycle length. Cycles can go from every 28 to 30 days to every 21 to 24 days—or 21-40 days. Cycles that are closer, further apart, longer, shorter, heavier, or lighter are all considered normal for perimenopause. Rarely, women go from having regular periods to having none, skipping the "transition."

98 percent of women experience a natural menopause—one year without menstruating—between ages 40 to 58. I have seen one or two women at age 60 still menstruating—but somebody has to be that 1 to 2 percent! We really are unable to predict the age of menopause for any given woman. Again, for most women the symptoms of perimenopause last for four to eight years, but, again, there are a few stragglers who have them longer than most.

Any bleeding after menopause deserves investigation and evaluation, so it is important to differentiate post-menopausal bleeding from a few lingering periods.

I sense from the question that you're ready for a "change"! Hang in there. It's coming.

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.

Tracking Menopause: More Detailed Guidelines for Docs

About ten years ago, a group of medical professionals put their heads together to create a set of guidelines that would chart the course of normal menopause in a more systematic way. They came up with a series of three stages that were each divided into several phases that women normally experience during menopause. These were the reproductive stage, which contained three phases; the menopausal transition, which contained two phases; the postmenopausal stage, which contained two phases.

The stages were determined by the changes that normally occur in a woman’s menstrual cycle and by follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) levels. (Read this MiddlesexMD blog post for more information about FSH.)

Each phase was given a number, from -5 for the early reproductive phase, in which a woman has regular menses but increasing FSH levels, to +2 for late postmenopausal phase, in which menstruation has completely stopped.

This diagnostic system is called the Stages of Reproductive Aging Workshop, or STRAW, and it’s been a widely used tool for further research. But clinicians have also found it useful as a roadmap for normal menopause—to determine where a woman is in the transition and to predict the course ahead.

Physicians felt that some sort of system was important because menopause marks such a significant change in a woman’s health and quality of life. Some of these changes are temporary (sleep disturbances, hot flashes), and others, such as changes in bone density and urogenital symptoms, are permanent. Given the importance of this transition, some guideline that outlines a normal course through menopause might help in making healthcare decisions about issues like contraception and hormone replacement.

“When women have an awareness of their progress during the shifting manifestations of natural aging, it can be very reassuring,” says Dr. Cynthia Steunkel at the University of California, San Diego, for an article in Menopause.

While helpful for “normal” menopause, however, the original STRAW guidelines specifically exclude women who smoke, are obese, engage in strenuous exercise, have had a hysterectomy, have a significant illness, such as AIDS or cancer, or who have chronic menstrual irregularities. It also fails to address possible differences due to ethnicity, age, and lifestyle.

In 2011, ten years after the first conference, the group reconvened to update the guidelines to take into account the significant body of new research that has emerged and to broaden the subgroups of women for whom the guidelines would apply. The updated guidelines that resulted from this latest review of the research is called STRAW + 10.

Specifically, the updated staging system includes new measures of specific hormones and other “biomarkers” that help to determine the stages of menopause. It added three new subphases that further define the late reproductive and postmenopausal stages. And it can be applied to “most women,” regardless of lifestyle and ethnic diversity, although some exceptions still apply for issues like ovarian failure and chronic illness.

Despite all the fancy testing and technology, however, the most dependable indicator of the stage of menopause is, still, a woman’s menstrual cycle. “...The menstrual cycle remains the single best way to estimate where a woman is along the reproductive path,” said Dr. Margery Gass, one of the coauthors of the new criteria and the executive director of the North American Menopause Society.

In fact, all those other tests for biomarkers are considered “supportive,” and because of the expense of testing and the need for additional research, they aren’t normally called for. I don’t recommend testing for FSH or other biomarkers, either. The tests just aren’t helpful enough.

The new STRAW + 10 guidelines fills in some gaps left by the original system and gives us all a clearer roadmap (which I'll detail in another blog post), but since it relies mainly on the menstrual cycle to determine the course of menopause, your best bet, as I said before, is to tune into your body and work to make peace with the changes you’re experiencing. You're not alone! We're here to help.