Menopause is a normal stage of a woman’s life when ovulation and monthly periods end, ceasing the ability of reproduction. According to the National Institute on Aging, the average age of the onset of menopause for women in the United States is 51, although it can occur for women around the world between the ages of 40 and 60. Early menopause occurs prior to the age of 40.
Symptoms of Early Menopause
The symptoms of early menopause are similar to those experienced by women who are going through normal menopause and signal estrogen deficiency. These symptoms include:
- Night sweats
- Hot flashes
- Decreased sexual desire
- Vaginal dryness
- Difficulty concentrating
When to See a Doctor
You should see your doctor if you have missed your period for three months or more. Missed periods can be caused by a number of reasons and your doctor can rule out any other possible causes.
Causes of Early Menopause
There are a number of causes for early or premature menopause, including natural and medical reasons and lifestyle changes. The causes of early menopause include:
1. Medical Causes
- Surgical removal of the ovaries (bilateral oophorectomy) will cause menopause immediately due to a drastic reduction in hormones.
- Surgical removal of the uterus (hysterectomy) will also lead to early menopause, though not immediately, because the ovaries are left intact and continue to produce hormones.
- Chemotherapy and radiation treatments for abdominal cancer can damage the ovaries, reducing the production of hormones and causing early menopause.
2. Natural Causes
- If there is a family history of premature menopause, then you are more likely to experience early menopause.
- Defects in the chromosomes, such as Turner’s syndrome in which women are born without all or part of the X chromosome, cause the ovaries to form abnormally, leading to early menopause.
- Autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis and thyroid disease can lead to the body’s immune system attacking the ovaries, causing early menopause.
3. Lifestyle Causes
- Smoking has anti-estrogen effects that can contribute to early menopause and long-term studies have shown that regular smokers can experience menopause earlier than non-smokers.
- Low body mass index (BMI), meaning lower fat cells in the body which is needed for normal production and storage of estrogen, can cause early menopause. Other studies have shown that overweight women can experience later onset of menopause because of the same reason.
Influences of Early Menopause
While early menopause can be disconcerting for many women, there are both benefits and complications to early menopause.
1. Benefits of Early Menopause
Early menopause does have some benefits to health. It can protect against certain diseases, particularly estrogen sensitive cancers such as breast cancer. Women who begin menopause later in life (55 and older) have tissue that is exposed to estrogen for longer periods of time, increasing their risk for breast cancer.
2. Complications of Early Menopause.
- Osteoporosis. Early menopause causes a large reduction of estrogen which is necessary to maintain strong bones. This reduction due to early menopause puts women at greater risk of brittle and weak bones.
- Infertility. In rare cases, pregnancy can occur, but generally with the onset of early menopause, reproduction ceases and results in infertility.
- Anxiety or depression. Lower estrogen in the body can cause women to become anxious or depressed.
- Other complications. Early menopause and lower estrogen can put women at greater risk of other serious medical conditions such as dementia, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease and even premature death.
Treatments for Early Menopause
There are currently no treatments to reverse early menopause but there are treatment options for the unwanted and possibly unpleasant symptoms of early menopause. These treatments include:
- Hormone therapy. Estrogen replacements to ease symptoms of early menopause are available in many forms including pills, patches or creams. There are also localized treatments for intravaginal use. There are some adverse health risks to hormone replacement, so it should be discussed with your doctor.
- Oral birth control pills. These can be effective at relieving some symptoms of early menopause due to the estrogen in the contraceptives.
- Antidepressants. These medications can help with symptoms of anxiety and depression, and it has been shown to reduce hot flashes for up to sixty percent of women.
- Non-hormonal vaginal creams. These over-the-counter topical applications can help relieve vaginal dryness.
- Assisted reproduction. Early menopausal women who wish to have children can use donor eggs to get pregnant.
Preventions for Early Menopause
There are a few things you can do to help prevent early menopause, especially when the early onset is due to lifestyle and bad habits.
1. Quit Smoking
Smoking causes substances in the body to reduce blood circulation. This reduced blood flow to the uterus and ovaries can cause damage that affects the level of hormones, leading to early menopause.
2. Regular Exercise
Regular exercise is important to maintain health and a good weight, and being overweight or underweight can affect estrogen levels in the body. Regular exercise also boosts blood circulation and the immune system.
3. Eat Foods Rich in Phytoestrogens
Foods such as soy and grains contain phytoestrogens that can act as estrogen in the body. Consumption of these foods can delay the onset of menopause when the body’s natural levels of estrogen have dropped.
4. Increase Antioxidant Intake
Foods rich in antioxidants such as fresh fruits and vegetables can prevent premature aging and early menopause. Antioxidants keep cells healthy and provide a healthy body overall. Foods such as spinach, broccoli, strawberries and apples are high in antioxidants.