Menopause is a natural, biological process that occurs in every woman’s life. It marks the permanent end of monthly periods (menstruation) and fertility. This means she is no longer able to have children. During this transition period, a woman’s ovaries stop making eggs and her body produces less estrogen and progesterone. Menopause is confirmed when a woman has no period for 12 months in a row.
According to the National Institute on Aging, the average onset of menopause in the United States is age 51, but the normal range is between 45 and 55. Some women enter this stage of life before the age of 40. This is called premature menopause. Many different factors can cause premature menopause, such as:
- autoimmune disorders
- damage to the ovaries
- surgery (such as a hysterectomy)
Although menopause is a completely natural stage of a woman’s life cycle and not a disease, a series of uncomfortable physical and emotional symptoms usually accompany it. Various forms of treatment can typically lessen these symptoms.
From the time a woman begins puberty until she enters menopause, she generally has a period around the same time every month. Of course, irregular periods happen from time to time. Pregnancy and other medical conditions interrupt your period.
During the first half of a woman’s normal menstrual cycle, the ovaries, two glands located on either side of the uterus, produce higher levels of the hormone estrogen. This causes the lining of the uterus to thicken to prepare for possible pregnancy. An egg in one of the ovaries also starts to mature during this time.
Near the middle of a woman’s menstrual cycle (typically day 7 to 22, or day 14 for women on a standard, 28-day cycle), the mature egg is released in a process known as ovulation. After the egg is released, the ovaries make more of the hormone progesterone. If the egg is not fertilized, the levels of estrogen and progesterone decrease, leading the body to shed the lining of the uterus. This causes a period.
As a woman approaches menopause, her ovaries produce less estrogen, which can cause irregular periods. The term "menopause" is defined as a woman’s last menstrual cycle. After a woman’s final period, a year without further periods confirms the permanent end of fertility.
Menopause is defined by three stages. These stages happen over a series of months or even years.
On the one-year anniversary of her last period a woman reaches menopause. It is a normal part of being female and one step in a process that unfolds over years. Signs of menopause vary widely. Some women report years of intense hot flashes, while others sail quite smoothly through the change of life.
A woman enters menopause when it has been 12 months since her last period. At this point, her ovaries have stopped releasing eggs. Production of the sex hormones estrogen and progesterone significantly decreases. This stage indicates an end to fertility.
The years following menopausal changes in a woman’s body are called postmenopause. During this time, symptoms like night sweats and hot flashes ease for most women.
Most women go through menopause without complications. They may experience negative symptoms, but these are normal and to be expected. While some women have an easy menopause with few side effects, others have more difficult symptoms.
Conventional and alternative treatment methods are available to lessen these symptoms and ease the transition period. There are many avenues for relief, from hormone replacement therapy to herbs to stress reduction techniques. By talking with your doctor about menopause, you can decide what, if any, treatment is right for you.
Written by: Lisa Cappelloni
Medically reviewed on Sep 29, 2016 by Michael Weber, MD