“Menopause hit me at 50 like a freight train,” says Cheri Larson, 53, of Green Bay, Wis. “Hot flashes, night sweats, fatigue…I felt I’d stepped into someone else’s body, and I wanted mine back.”
According to the World Health Organization, by 2030, 1.2 billion women will be 50 or older, and many will, like Larson, feel tortured by menopausal symptoms. But menopausal misery is not inevitable—if you’re prepared for it, that is. Below, experts outline ways to make menopause more mild than miserable.
- Know the signs of perimenopause. Perimenopause is the period of about eight years before menopause, when women get clues that menopause, or the end of menstruation, is coming, says Dr. Judi Chervenak, associate clinical professor of obstetrics, gynecology and women’s health at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City: “You have very high highs of estrogen and very low lows. And those changes in estrogen cause symptoms like hot flashes, memory problems and vaginal dryness.” Fatigue and low libido are also calling cards of perimenopause.
- Don’t rely on a blood test to confirm menopause. “To be postmenopausal”—defined as 12 months without a period—“you have to have consistently low estrogen levels with high FSH [follicle stimulating hormone] levels,” Chervenak says. “You may get that snapshot in a perimenopause blood test and at other times not.” FSH is a hormone that helps eggs mature and produce estrogen.
- Overhaul your diet. “Cut out fast foods, salts and sugars,” says Dr. Lynn Anderson, a naturopath and yoga pro in Los Angeles. “If your food is good, it helps keep hormones at a proper level and your energy up to deal with anxiety and moods.” Anderson stresses eating whole grains—rye, oats, wheat—as well as liver for the additional B complex vitamins. “Those help lift mild depression and are also involved in vaginal lubrication.” Lost estrogen weakens bones, so add a daily calcium and vitamin D supplement as well, Chervenak says: 1000-1200 mg of calcium and 400 IU of vitamin D divided into two doses.
- Get moving. To keep weight off and energy up, boost your exercise regimen. Jennifer Cassetta, a nutritionist and fitness expert in Los Angeles, recommends 30 minutes of strength training two days a week, using light weights and doing lots of repetitions. “You need to build more lean muscle to raise metabolism so that you burn more calories at rest,” she says. In addition to strength-training, schedule a 30-60 minute cardiovascular workout four-five times a week. “You can start by walking. When you’re more fit, you can jog or take a spinning class, kickboxing or martial arts.”
- Take sleep seriously. Chervenak recommends keeping a sleep diary to track what you did and ate before good and bad sleep. “Also keep your room dark and cold,” she says. “Exercise and stopping smoking will also help you sleep better.” Haralee Weintraub of Portland, Oregon, 57, whose night sweats started when she was 49, found wicking, or loosely woven, sleepwear so helpful for sleeping that she started making her own. (Haralee.com)
- Tend to your looks. Cassetta recommends taking biotin, or B7, to keep nails strong and protect your hair, which becomes drier and thinner with menopause. The Institute of Medicine recommends taking 30 mcg per day. “And do not wash your hair every day,” Anderson says.
- Rev up your sizzle. “If sex hurts, who wants to have it?” says Chervenak, referring to the pain that friction can cause in a dry vagina. “Water-based lubricants like Astroglide can help.” So can estrogen inserted as a ring or pill into the vagina.
- Undermine stress and depression. Anderson swears by dancing. “Do housework to music. The music vibrates with your body and mind and can shift your mood. I have 70-year-old women who love dancing and feel sexy when they leave my classes.”