By Glenn Ellis
As we continue to get closer to the heat of summer, many women are dreading experiencing their own “private summer” in the sweltering heat. Of course, most people know that this refers to the “hot flashes that accompany menopause.
Menopause is a common occurrence that occurs in the life span of all women. Some experience it naturally, while others experience it as the result of other phenomena; which I will explain later.
First, let’s look at exactly what menopause is (or is not).
I am amazed and dismayed at the way our society has relegated it as a disease in the minds of most men and women. Nothing can be further from the truth.
From the point of puberty, a woman’s ovaries are supplied with eggs, which are for fertilization in the process of pregnancy. The ovaries utilized a constant availability of estrogen in order to produce and keep the eggs healthy. Estrogen is a hormone, like the many other hormones that the body’s endocrine system produces. This endocrine system is comprised of a number of glands, each producing its own particular hormone(s) for the health and vibrancy of the respective gland. The hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and pineal gland are your brain. The thyroid and parathyroid glands are in your neck. The thymus is between your lungs, the adrenals are on top of your kidneys, and the pancreas is behind your stomach. Your ovaries (if you’re a woman) or testes (if you’re a man) are in your pelvic region. Each gland has specific hormones that control many different bodily functions, including: breathing; metabolism; reproduction; sensory perception; movement; sexual development; and growth.
An important point in this look at menopause is to understand that the endocrine works in harmony in the production of all of these hormones, the glands in the system work in harmony, and there is a precise balance of hormones.
Now back to menopause.
Throughout a woman’s life, the ovaries have a lifetime supply of eggs that are not replenished. It is estimated that there are 400 eggs stored in the ovaries from the start of puberty. Each month, an egg is released in the fallopian tubes, and made available should sperm present itself for fertilization. At the same time the uterus prepares for a possible pregnancy. If pregnancy does not take place, the uterus lining and the egg are released, and shed through the vagina. This is the menstrual cycle.
If a woman begins menstruating between age 15-18, with an egg being released from the ovaries each month, this means that somewhere around the early 50s, menopause begins naturally. At this time, with no more eggs to take care of, the natural production of estrogen slows down, and eventually comes to a complete stop.
As mentioned earlier, each of the glands and their hormones have specific functions, and the abrupt end of estrogen disrupts the balance of the entire system, resulting in what is referred to as menopausal symptoms.
Now all of a sudden, things that worked smoothly throughout life begin to go haywire. Just look at a partial list of menopausal symptoms: irregular periods; vaginal dryness; hot flashes; chills; night sweats; sleep problems; mood changes; weight gain; and slowed metabolism.
Understandably, these symptoms are enough to make anyone miserable, and wrongly identify menopause as a disease.
The hot flashes, or private summers, are the result of the disruption in the hormonal balance of the thyroid. The thyroid, among other things, is the body’s thermometer and metabolism regulator. So, now you see why those hot flashes happen, and why you just don’t want to be “bothered”.
Now, about those women who go into menopause not for “natural” reasons.
Some women just plain experience a natural decline in their estrogen production and may enter menopause much earlier than normal. Others go into early menopause due to hysterectomy; treatments like chemotherapy; or approximately 1 percent of women have genetic or auto-immune predisposition that may lead to an early menopause.
Common thinking is that menopause automatically means the start of hormone replacement therapy (HRT).
These are chemical “duplicates” of natural female hormones. It is important to check with your doctor to determine if this is right for you, as HRT does have some potentially life-threatening side effects. A few of these risks are: heart disease; stroke; blood clots; and breast cancer.
Just know that menopause is not the end of the world. In fact, it’s a new beginning; filled with liberation; freedom; and all the joys that life can bring.
Glenn Ellis, is Research Bioethics Fellow at Harvard Medical School and author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. Ellis is an active media contributor on Health Equity and Medical Ethics.
Listen to Glenn, on radio in Birmingham or V94.9, Sundays at 7:50pm, or visit: www.glennellis.com.