Hormonal Stages and Menopause: A Primer

One of the life experiences women face is a period of their life called menopause — the point where normal menstruation stops and the ovaries decrease their production of hormones. This life change can start anywhere between the ages of 40 and 60.

During the aging process, hormone production begins to fluctuate and slow down. Hormones control how our body regulates its behavior and function. This touches everything from where and how we grow hair, to how and when we get hungry, to how our bodies regulate temperature. The principle hormones affected during this time are estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone, and when their balance is altered, it can wreak havoc with how your body feels and reacts.

Estrogen is the female sex hormone that is responsible for stimulating the characteristics for the development of female body such as the formation of breasts. Progesterone is the hormone responsible for preparing the womb for pregnancy, and later stopping the placenta from ejecting the developing embryo or fetus. Testosterone in women is associated with libido and sexual function, similarly to how it functions in men, and changes to any of these hormone levels can even throw off the levels of other hormones, causing further issues.

The Four Hormonal Stages

There are four hormonal stages in the life of a woman. The first stage is referred to as premenopause — the period between a woman’s first and last regular menstrual cycle when a woman’s reproductive system functions normally. Towards perimenopause, there may be less noticeable changes or declines in hormone production.

The second stage is called perimenopause (literally, “around the menopause”) and sees a woman’s body begin its transition into menopause. This transition can begin as early as the age of 35, before their menstrual cycle completely ceases, and can last up to ten or more years. It is at this stage that women may have more severe hormone fluctuations. Estrogen, for example, is produced at much higher levels than in premenopause. This is also where the body starts sounding alarms, the most common symptoms being hot flashes and night sweats. But there are more that are not as obvious or easy to associate with anything in particular, such as fatigue, unexplained weight changes, mood swings, urinary tract infections, decreased sex drive, difficulty concentrating, insomnia, vaginal dryness, and noncancerous masses in the breast tissue.

It is the third stage that is commonly referred to as menopause, and it is identified as the point at which a woman’s menstrual cycle stops and their body’s ability to produce estrogen and progesterone decreases substantially. The ovaries will also stop producing eggs, and the window for natural childbirth closes. As menstruation may be erratic or sporadic until it stops completely, the pre, peri, and post stages are identified by their relation to the “menopausal moment,” if you will, since that exact moment is harder to pin down than an individual’s progression towards or away from it.

It must be noted, however, that a woman of any age can experience early menopause if they are required to have a total or partial hysterectomy. When this type of surgery is performed, it causes hormone production to decline, resulting in many of the same imbalances and the symptoms thereof.

The fourth stage is referred to as postmenopause. The phase is defined as being 12 months after a woman’s last menstrual cycle. Reproductive hormone production will continue to decrease or fluctuate during this time, and hormonal effects like the hot flash can continue for several years. At this point, a woman is typically considered infertile, although it is important to note that a small possibility of natural pregnancy still exists for some years until a woman reaches postmenopause. This is also where osteoporosis becomes a larger concern, as decreases in estrogen lead to increases in bone resorption, and therefore decreases in bone mass. Muscle mass and strength can also decrease during this period, especially in the bladder — a common culprit behind frequent urination.

Finding Balance

With hormones playing such a crucial part in how our bodies regulate themselves, it’s easy to see how any change or imbalance could bring about anything from high blood pressure to low bone mass, changes in hair growth, and even an acceleration of the aging process. It’s not even uncommon for these changes to have psychological expressions, such as depression. Thankfully, there are treatments available, generally focusing on the restoration of estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone levels, that can alleviate or eliminate these effects. Advances in bio-identical hormone therapies have made it even easier, as your body will respond to these treatments as though they were natural hormones.

If you think hormone therapy might improve your quality of life, talk to your doctor and see if the services of a clinic like Body Concepts and Wellness is right for you. Your physicians and clinical care team will work together to develop and administer a treatment plan specific to your needs so you can continue to have a healthy and happy lifestyle.

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