Stop right there, period

By: Alison Dunn Sep 20, 2010

The symptoms of menopause can last anywhere from two to five years. Here’s how to find relief.

As women, we like to complain about our periods. A lot. But as much as we hate getting “the curse,” when we eventually stop getting those periods, it’s not always easy to deal with.

Unfortunately for most women, menopause doesn’t mean your periods just stop, like switching off a light. Instead, it is a long, drawn-out process that can start as much as five years before your last menstrual period (a time known as perimenopause), bringing with it hormonal shifts, hot flashes, mood swings and more.

Think it might be happening to you? Here’s what to expect when you’re reaching menopause.

Menopause? More like meno-stop

We might call the end our menstrual cycle (or menses) menopause, but it’s really about the eventual stop of your monthly periods forever.

“The easiest way to think about it is that you’re born with a certain number of follicles, or eggs, and each month they get released and we have our periods,” says Dr. Dara Maker, a family physician at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto. “With time, our hormones change and our estrogen levels go down, and we stop releasing those eggs each month. Then we go into a menopausal state.”

How can you tell if it’s happening to you? The average age of menopause (i.e. the last menstrual period) is 51, so most women will start going into perimenopause sometime around age 45. It’s rare to go into menopause before age 40, Maker says, which is instead considered premature ovarian failure. But for 95 per cent of us, we’ll be done having our periods by the time we reach 55.

The first symptom is a change in your menstrual cycle, with periods becoming more erratic. For some women that can mean periods that become lighter and farther apart; for others, it can mean periods that are heavier and closer together.

Then, there are the basal motor symptoms of menopause, which include:

  • Hot flashes
  • Night sweats
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Bladder problems

The good news is that menopause doesn’t really last forever, says Maker. “These basal motor symptoms do tend to dissipate with time,” Maker says. “For some women, they last a year. For some, five years. But they rarely last longer than that.”

Wish it were gone in a (hot) flash?

One of the best ways to deal with the symptoms of menopause is lifestyle therapy, says Maker. That means eating a healthy diet with fresh, whole foods, limiting alcohol and caffeine and getting lots of exercise to help reduce stress.

Maker says there is also some evidence that acupuncture is helpful in dealing with menopausal symptoms. So are certain medical treatments such as antidepressants or even pain medications that have been shown to be effective at easing menopausal symptoms. There are also topical medications that can improve vaginal dryness, Maker adds, so check with your doctor if you are experiencing any discomfort.

And while hormone replacement therapy has gotten a bad rap in the media over the past few years, Maker says there are times when it can be safe for women to be on HRT. “It’s something women should discuss with their doctors,” Maker says. “It isn’t for everybody, but it can be a good option if someone is having symptoms she just can’t deal with on her own.”


A journalist with more than 10 years experience, Alison’s work has appeared in a number of top Canadian publications, including glow, Oxygen, Canadian Running and more. She is the former editor of a number of well-respected Canadian and American trade journals and recipient of a Kenneth R. Wilson Gold Award of Excellence in feature article writing. She is a part-time faculty member at Sheridan College’s journalism department, as well as an avid runner and fitness enthusiast.