Your cycle’s been a bit out of whack lately, you’ve been feeling a little more snappy at work (why is the room temperature suddenly unbearable?), and when you finally rest your weary head, your precious beauty sleep is disturbed by 2am trips to the bathroom. While these symptoms could be indicative of another day in the life of a woman (thanks to the ever-changing nature of our hormonal cycle), they could also be a sign of premature ovarian failure (POF) or premature menopause.
When you think of menopause, you probably think of women in their 40s to 60s. However, according to the American Pregnancy Organization, early menopause impacts one in every 100 women aged 30 to 39 and one in every 1,000 between the ages of 15 to 29, with 27 as the average age affected. While these symptoms can be scary to deal with as a young woman, rest easy knowing that you’re not alone and there are options available to you.
Causes and Symptoms of Premature Menopause
Premature menopause occurs for a variety of reasons, including thyroid-related autoimmune disorders or even a genetic predisposition. Trauma-induced menopause has also been reported in PTSD and eating disorder patients, as extreme stress sends our body’s hormone producers into an emergency state, shooting cortisol levels through the roof and often causing irregular menstruation. As stress levels of women in the United States continue to rise, this can be a leading factor in early menopause, though the link between the two is still inconclusive.
Additionally, the 20 million American women who have had a hysterectomy know early menopause all too well; it is induced immediately as a result of the procedure. Those who have undergone radiation and chemotherapy treatments may also experience induced menopause due to the removal of or permanent damage to their ovaries, depending on the duration and nature of the treatment.
Premature ovarian failure is often mistakenly used interchangeably with early menopause, and while the symptoms are nearly identical, there is one significant difference. Like menopause, POF is characterized by high levels of follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) paired with low levels of estradiol, the primary female sex hormone, and absence of a monthly period. However, women with POF may still be able to get pregnant with fertility treatments, whereas a woman going through an early menopause cannot. Infertility is a major concern among the many women who wish to start a family, and although some may still be able to have a child through donor eggs and fertility treatments, a lot of them struggle to cope with the inability to conceive. This can be emotionally taxing and may give rise to a period of emotional distress some relate to a grieving process.
Whatever the cause, the symptoms remain the same, albeit often more severe than those of later, more typical menopause. Thinning hair, irregular menstruation (duration and flow), fatigue, decreased sexual desire, mood swings, night sweats, aches, and pains are all common symptoms that premenopausal women experience.
Luckily, there are options to treat these symptoms so you can resume living your life. Hormone replacement therapy can work to alleviate many symptoms, though there are risks associated with manipulating your hormones. Many women prefer a more holistic approach to managing premature menopause, including mindfulness, acupuncture, Vitamin D supplements, and other herbal treatments.
Regardless of whether you choose a more natural route or decide with your doctor that hormone replacement therapy is the best solution, women experiencing these symptoms are encouraged to have tests run to check for low hormone levels which can be done by obtaining a urine sample, drawing blood, or swabbing to confirm pH levels. These tests may need to be taken more than once to get an accurate read, as hormone and pH levels can differ throughout the duration of your cycle. Still, it’s important to address symptoms of early menopause—the longer you wait to be diagnosed, the harder it can be to manage.
Dealing with the Stigma of Premature Menopause
Dealing with premature menopause, especially in a country that so deeply stigmatizes the natural experiences of women, can feel challenging.
Thoughts of growing old before your time and worries of still appearing attractive to your partner (or yourself, for that matter) may creep up on you, especially if you’re thinking in terms of comparison to your friends or a past version of yourself. The added anxiety may feel like an identity crisis and your self-esteem could take a dive.
As with any experience in the female body, it’s important to address these concerns through conversation. It’s common for women to feel alone in their struggles with menstruation, sexuality, and yes, premature menopause. This is largely due to the fact that conversations about menopause (and other natural experiences for women) are rarely found in mainstream media or polite conversation.
The best way to combat the stigma is to talk about it, even when that feels uncomfortable. Talking to your mother, sister, or friends can help open a dialogue that will make you feel less alone—and give you treatment and management options you weren’t aware of.
Talking to your partner can also help alleviate some of the feelings of stress that come with early menopause. Ask for them to be understanding as you navigate these changes and for them to reassure that they are still attracted to you. We all need external validation from time to time, especially when dealing with intense life changes.
That being said, menopause is nothing to be ashamed of, even when it comes earlier than expected. It can be used as a time to tap into your emotional state, create a practice of mindfulness and intentional living, and happiness. Positive thoughts—coupled with homeopathic or medical treatments—can help you turn premature menopause into a positive experience that helps you establish an immense amount of self-love.
Premature menopause is a life-changing event that affects both your physical and mental being in a number of ways, but it doesn’t have to bring your life to a halt. Whether you’ve developed the condition through a genetic roll of the dice or have undergone surgical menopause, the adjustments will be difficult; but with the right treatments and support, you’ll still be able to live a full life and come out feeling strong. In fact, most women report no decrease at all to their quality of life. This can even be a time of great reflection. No matter what season of life, menopause is another part of womanly growth and development to be appreciated and from which we can learn.
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