What do we have to look forward to as our ovaries head for retirement? Here are some symptoms that our mothers didn't dare warn us about.
A couple of years ago, 40 hit me full-speed, crumpling my youth into a misshapen heap of memories. Suddenly I needed reading glasses. The lines on my face noticeably deepened. Grey hair sprouted from the top of my head like weeds.
I wasn't ecstatic about these new characteristics, but at least I was expecting them. Some other changes had me flummoxed, though. And it wasn't until I listened to a podcast about women in mid-life that I had a name for them: perimenopause.
"I think aging and the changes with age are one of our last frontiers of things that we don't like to talk about," says Dr. Jennifer Blake, CEO of the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, on why so many women are caught off-guard by this life stage. "It's sort of an admission of defeat in a way. And so women are often quite unprepared."
Turns out, us lucky ladies go through a decade-long transition from our reproductive years to menopause that wreaks havoc with our estrogen levels, causing some surprising results:
1. Low-key libido
"I think the one that surprises people the most is loss of desire," says Dr. Blake, who is based in Ottawa. Our sex drive can go into slo-mo as we approach menopause, which typically happens in our early 50s. One thing that throws our sex drive into park is the vaginal dryness that can result from decreasing estrogen levels—painful intercourse definitely isn't fun for anyone.
2. Holy-moly menstruation
Remember the erratic periods we had during puberty? They were Mother Nature's foreshadowing of the veritable blood-bath that can hit us monthly during perimenopause. "The body's swinging levels can lead to releasing a lot more estrogen some months, which can lead to much bigger buildup of the lining of the uterus, which can lead to those heavy periods," explains Dr. Blake. She adds that our cycles can be shorter, too, which means more bleeding, more often.
3. So. Much. Rage.
Fatigue, irritability, severe mood swings —these symptoms can make us feel like Jekyll and Hyde during perimenopause. Dr. Blake says fluctuating hormones can cause this emotional volatility, but she says it's important to look at other factors, too, such as the stress and busyness of home and work. "Would you say [fatigue] is perimenopause? Or would you say that is… having too much on your plate?" she asks. "Some [symptoms] are quite nonspecific."
4. Wide awake
Are you waking up at 3 a.m. and flip-flopping until dawn, unable to fall back asleep? Sleep disruption is another common complaint among the perimenopausal. But Dr. Blake says women need to make sure this isn't the result of something else, such as an extra glass of wine, which can cause wakefulness. "You really need to take a good, hard look at sleep hygiene and not say: ‘Oh well, it's just part of perimenopause.'"
5. Plumbing problems
Leaking when we cough or sneeze is common for moms after both pregnancy and childbirth can do a number on your bladder. But those occasional drips of urine can become an even less controllable stream as our bladder valve weakens with age. "It's important for women to have someone take a look at that and not just put on a pad and put up with it," says Dr. Blake. "Because there may be some very simple solutions available."
6. Sweaty Betty
Think hot flashes only hit during menopause? Nope. They can randomly drench our bodies in sweat baths in the transition years, too. "When you get the evil twins of both heavy and irregular periods and hot flashes all at the same time," says Dr. Blake. "I think this just isn't fair." We couldn't agree more, doc.