Menopause happens. Granted, not everyone reacts the same to it. Some people breeze through it without much fanfare.
Yet others bemoan its crazy-making symptoms, besieged by one or a combination of these common hallmarks: hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, weight gain, sleep disturbances, fatigue and forgetfulness.
You can't cure menopause—it's not an illness, after all!—but you sure can cope with it and even empower yourself to be healthier, wiser and stronger and totally transform your life.
Read more about The Upside to Menopause.
If the winds of menopause are threatening to push you off the edge, hang on. It is possible to take things into your own capable and strong hands and shift its direction.
In her book, The Wisdom of Menopause, Dr. Christiane Northrup says that "menopause is an exciting developmental stage—one that, when participated in consciously, holds enormous promise for transforming and healing our bodies, minds and spirits at the deepest levels."
Ready to do that? Keep reading.
Take advantage of your newfound freedom. Being free of your monthly periods—you've had approximately 480 of them by now—is, indeed, something to celebrate. Dr. Northrup says that during the menopausal transition—in addition to its hormonal shifts—our nervous systems are being rewired; our intuition enhanced. This "exciting developmental stage" can set the stage to venture out and accomplish new and exciting things—perhaps a new career, a return to school, a new relationship. Allowing yourself to focus on exploration, creative expression and self-esteem can quickly take the place of focusing on any of the uncomfortable (but temporary) physical changes you may be experiencing during this time.
Focus on the right foods. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, eating fruit or a Mediterranean-style diet can decrease the incidence of hot flashes and night sweats. Steer clear of a high-fat or high-sugar diet, which can do the opposite. The best way to eat: a diet low in fat and high in whole grains, fruits and veggies.
Pay attention to the temperature. It might sound obvious, but sleeping in a too-warm room can ramp up your night sweats. Make sure your bedroom is cool (throw the windows open to let some of that colder air in), rid your bed of extra blankets, sleep in a light moisture-wicking nightgown (or none at all!).
Prepare for your heat surges. Wear light layers that you can easily remove when hot flashes strike, and avoid common triggers like caffeine, alcohol, spicy food and smoking. Take a cool shower before bed. Keep a fan and cold water beside your bed, and practice relaxation techniques like slow and deep breathing and meditation to guide you through the flashes, which usually last from a short 30 seconds to a long 10 minutes.
Get plenty of exercise. Although it's not proven to reduce the symptoms of menopause, exercise can help by keeping your weight under control (heavier women may suffer more severe hot flashes, and studies find losing weight may help), relieving stress and improving your overall quality of life. Added bonus: Exercise may protect against various types of cancers and can slow bone loss and boost your mood. You need not go to a gym to get exercise—you can do it anywhere! Take a walk, dig in your garden, ride your bicycle, join a team sport, dance or participate in any other activity that gets you moving.
Get enough sleep. You might ask, "Just how can I get enough sleep when night sweats are preventing that?" But it's important to try, because sleep deprivation can make your night sweats worse. Using proper sleep hygiene can help: keep your room dark, quiet and cool (between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit is optimal); avoid stimulants like nicotine and caffeine and foods that are heavy, rich or fatty too close to bedtime; limit daytime napping to 30 minutes; and establish a relaxing, regular bedtime routine.
Treat your vagina well. Dryness, itchiness, burning and pain or discomfort surface around the time of menopause, because low levels of estrogen can cause vaginal tissues to become drier and thinner and make you more prone to infection and less interested in sex. There are plenty of things you can do to sidestep the problem. An over-the-counter vaginal moisturizer used every few days can help lubricate the vagina and make sex more comfortable; a water-based vaginal lubricant used before or during sex can make help ease or prevent painful sex; prescriptions including hormonal birth control, menopausal hormone therapy or a prescription estrogen cream, gel or ring can all be valuable in protecting and restoring the lining of your vagina.
Stay social. You may not feel social, but surrounding yourself with people you like or joining a group that focuses on an activity you enjoy can help delay or prevent memory issues that can crop up during the menopause transition. And being around good friends is a huge mood-booster and a time for bonding and sharing your menopause battle stories. Misery does love company, after all.
Pay attention to your bladder. During menopause, many women experience bladder or urinary issues because lower estrogen levels can weaken the urethra. To help prevent urinary urge incontinence or stress incontinence, limit or avoid caffeine (which can be an irritant) and make sure to practice your Kegel exercises. And if you're overweight, losing weight may help, because extra pounds put more pressure on your bladder and neighboring muscles.
Communicate with family and friends. It's not uncommon for women going through menopause to feel as if they're losing their minds or as if an alien has invaded their bodies or as if they're all alone. But remember, you're not alone! Menopause hits all of us at some point. Bonding with other women and talking with people close to you can help them understand how menopause is affecting you, as well as help you unleash your innermost feelings, which is always cathartic and therapeutic.