En español | For some women, menopause is barely a blip on the road through middle age. For others, symptoms are so severe that they can wreak havoc for 15 years or more. Although menopause is a normal change that happens when a woman has not had a period for 12 months in a row, the signs surrounding it can feel anything but ordinary: night sweats, vaginal dryness, mood swings, hot flashes and sleep troubles. In short, it’s no walk in the park. But one thing that can help the transition is separating fact from fiction. Here are five myths about menopause that need to be busted.
1. Myth: Menopause is a sex killer.
Truth: Many people link the decline in hormones that happens as women age to a decline in libido. But that’s not necessarily the case. A study out of King’s College London found that menopause doesn’t play as big a role in sexual problems as once thought. A greater factor in determining how your sex life will play out is whether you had issues with desire and orgasm before menopause. If you did, then the challenges are more likely to continue. In short, women can still give their sex life a boost — even after menopause.
A caveat: it’s true that vaginal dryness, caused by a drop in estrogen, can make sex painful. But JoAnn Pinkerton, an obstetrician-gynecologist and the executive director of the North American Menopause Society, says the use of prescription low-dose estrogen applied directly to vaginal tissues — by cream, ring or suppository — can help counteract the thinning and dryness of vaginal tissues. Also good: over-the-counter, water-based lubricants and sex toys that may help increase the natural flow of things. And the more you have sex, the healthier your vaginal tissues will be.
2. Myth: All hot flashes are created equal.
Truth: Yes, more than 70 percent of women do get hot flashes and night sweats. But not every menopausal woman does. And some get major hot flashes that are extremely agitating, while others get minor ones that are perfectly tolerable. In general, there are actually four patterns when it comes to hot flashes, according to a 2016 study published in the journal Menopause. The breakdown goes like this: Some women are “early onset” hot flashers and begin to experience symptoms as many as 11 years before the final menstrual period. But the symptoms end around the time of their last period. Other women are “late onset” hot flashers and don’t experience their first hot flash until after their final period. Still others — considered by researchers as the “lucky few” — never have a hot flash. The final group — made up of the “not-so-lucky few” — begin to experience hot flashes early in life, with symptoms that last long after menopause. About 1 in 4 middle-aged women fall into this category.
3. Myth: Absolutely nothing can be done to reduce menopause symptoms.
Truth: Recent research has demonstrated how regular exercise can help menopausal women not only lose weight and feel better about themselves, but also control hot flashes and other symptoms. The Menopause Society’s Pinkerton said: “Growing evidence indicates that an active lifestyle with regular exercise enhances health, quality of life and fitness in postmenopausal women.” She also noted that exercise has been shown to result in fewer hot flashes and a better mood.
In addition, a 2016 review of 62 studies revealed that some plant-based therapies, including supplements with compounds found in soybeans, could help lessen symptoms. The review found that women who took phytoestrogens — a class of compounds found in certain foods such as soybeans — reported having one fewer hot flash per day. They also suffered less from vaginal dryness, compared with women who took a placebo.
4. Myth: Weight gain during menopause is inevitable.
Truth: Menopause actually does not cause weight gain, but it can increase belly fat, researchers have found. The reason? A drop in estrogen levels after menopause can make fat storage shift from the hips and thighs to the stomach. Also true is that the older you get, the harder it can be to control your weight — although it can be done. A 2003 study of 535 premenopausal women who were followed throughout menopause discovered that the women were able to avoid gaining weight — and some were able to actually lose weight — by following a 1,300-calorie diet and burning 1,000 to 1,500 calories a week. Most experts recommend aiming for at least two hours and 30 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity, which can also give you more energy and brighten your mood.
5. Myth: Sleep problems have nothing to do with menopause.
Truth: They do — big time. From perimenopause to postmenopause, women report the most sleeping problems, according to the Sleep Foundation. Often these problems are the result of hot flashes, insomnia and mood disorders. In general, postmenopausal women are very dissatisfied with their sleep, with as many as 61 percent saying they suffer from frequent insomnia. To improve your quality of sleep, try working aerobic exercise into your week on a regular basis. Also, avoid caffeine, which can take eight hours to leave your system, and keep your bedroom cool and comfortable to keep hot flashes at bay. Lightweight cotton pajamas work wonders, as well.