Perimenopause means “around menopause” and refers to the time during which your body makes the natural transition to menopause, marking the end of the reproductive years. Perimenopause is also called the menopausal transition.
Women start perimenopause at different ages. You may notice signs of progression toward menopause, such as menstrual irregularity, sometime in your 40s. But some women notice changes as early as their mid-30s.
The level of estrogen — the main female hormone — in your body rises and falls unevenly during perimenopause. Your menstrual cycles may lengthen or shorten, and you may begin having menstrual cycles in which your ovaries don’t release an egg (ovulate). You may also experience menopause-like symptoms, such as hot flashes, sleep problems and vaginal dryness. Treatments are available to help ease these symptoms.
Once you’ve gone through 12 consecutive months without a menstrual period, you’ve officially reached menopause, and the perimenopause period is over.
Throughout the menopausal transition, some subtle — and some not-so-subtle — changes in your body may take place. You might experience:
- Irregular periods. As ovulation becomes more unpredictable, the length of time between periods may be longer or shorter, your flow may be light to heavy, and you may skip some periods. If you have a persistent change of seven days or more in the length of your menstrual cycle, you may be in early perimenopause. If you have a space of 60 days or more between periods, you’re likely in late perimenopause.
- Hot flashes and sleep problems. Hot flashes are common during perimenopause. The intensity, length and frequency vary. Sleep problems are often due to hot flashes or night sweats, but sometimes sleep becomes unpredictable even without them.
- Mood changes. Mood swings, irritability or increased risk of depression may happen during perimenopause. The cause of these symptoms may be sleep disruption associated with hot flashes. Mood changes may also be caused by factors not related to the hormonal changes of perimenopause.
- Vaginal and bladder problems. When estrogen levels diminish, your vaginal tissues may lose lubrication and elasticity, making intercourse painful. Low estrogen may also leave you more vulnerable to urinary or vaginal infections. Loss of tissue tone may contribute to urinary incontinence.
- Decreasing fertility. As ovulation becomes irregular, your ability to conceive decreases. However, as long as you’re having periods, pregnancy is still possible. If you wish to avoid pregnancy, use birth control until you’ve had no periods for 12 months.
- Changes in sexual function. During perimenopause, sexual arousal and desire may change. But if you had satisfactory sexual intimacy before menopause, this will likely continue through perimenopause and beyond.
- Loss of bone. With declining estrogen levels, you start to lose bone more quickly than you replace it, increasing your risk of osteoporosis — a disease that causes fragile bones.
- Changing cholesterol levels. Declining estrogen levels may lead to unfavorable changes in your blood cholesterol levels, including an increase in low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol — the “bad” cholesterol — which contributes to an increased risk of heart disease. At the same time, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol — the “good” cholesterol — decreases in many women as they age, which also increases the risk of heart disease.
When to see a doctor
Some women seek medical attention for their perimenopausal symptoms. But others either tolerate the changes or simply don’t experience symptoms severe enough to need attention. Because symptoms may be subtle and come on gradually, you may not realize at first that they’re all connected to the same thing — rising and falling levels of estrogen and progesterone, another key female hormone.
If you have symptoms that interfere with your life or well-being, such as hot flashes, mood swings or changes in sexual function that concern you, see your doctor.
As you go through the menopausal transition, your body’s production of estrogen and progesterone rises and falls. Many of the changes you experience during perimenopause are a result of decreasing estrogen.
Menopause is a normal phase in life. But it may occur earlier in some women than in others. Although not always conclusive, some evidence suggests that certain factors may make it more likely that you start perimenopause at an earlier age, including:
- Smoking. The onset of menopause occurs one to two years earlier in women who smoke than in women who don’t smoke.
- Family history. Women with a family history of early menopause may experience early menopause themselves.
- Cancer treatment. Treatment for cancer with chemotherapy or pelvic radiation therapy has been linked to early menopause.
- Hysterectomy. A hysterectomy that removes your uterus, but not your ovaries, usually doesn’t cause menopause. Although you no longer have periods, your ovaries still produce estrogen. But such surgery may cause menopause to occur earlier than average. Also, if you have one ovary removed, the remaining ovary might stop working sooner than expected.
Irregular periods are a hallmark of perimenopause. Most of the time this is normal and nothing to be concerned about. However, see your doctor if:
- Bleeding is extremely heavy — you’re changing tampons or pads every hour or two for two or more hours
- Bleeding lasts longer than seven days
- Bleeding occurs between periods
- Periods regularly occur less than 21 days apart
Signs such as these may mean there’s a problem with your reproductive system that requires diagnosis and treatment.
Perimenopause is a process — a gradual transition. No one test or sign is enough to determine if you’ve entered perimenopause. Your doctor takes many things into consideration, including your age, menstrual history, and what symptoms or body changes you’re experiencing.
Some doctors may order tests to check your hormone levels. But other than checking thyroid function, which can affect hormone levels, hormone testing is rarely necessary or useful to evaluate perimenopause.
Drug therapy is often used to treat perimenopausal symptoms.
- Hormone therapy. Systemic estrogen therapy — which comes in pill, skin patch, gel or cream form — remains the most effective treatment option for relieving perimenopausal and menopausal hot flashes and night sweats. Depending on your personal and family medical history, your doctor may recommend estrogen in the lowest dose needed to provide symptom relief for you. If you still have your uterus, you’ll need progestin in addition to estrogen. Systemic estrogen can help prevent bone loss.
- Vaginal estrogen. To relieve vaginal dryness, estrogen can be administered directly to the vagina using a vaginal tablet, ring or cream. This treatment releases just a small amount of estrogen, which is absorbed by the vaginal tissue. It can help relieve vaginal dryness, discomfort with intercourse and some urinary symptoms.
- Antidepressants. Certain antidepressants related to the class of drugs called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may reduce menopausal hot flashes. An antidepressant for management of hot flashes may be useful for women who can’t take estrogen for health reasons or for women who need an antidepressant for a mood disorder.
- Gabapentin (Neurontin). Gabapentin is approved to treat seizures, but it has also been shown to help reduce hot flashes. This drug is useful in women who can’t use estrogen therapy for health reasons and in those who also have migraines.
Before deciding on any form of treatment, talk with your doctor about your options and the risks and benefits involved with each. Review your options yearly, as your needs and treatment options may change.
In addition to conventional therapies, many women transitioning toward menopause want to know more about complementary and alternative approaches to treating symptoms. Researchers are looking into these therapies to determine their safety and effectiveness, but evidence is still often lacking.
Some of the options studied include:
- Black cohosh. This herb extract is used by some women to treat hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms. There’s not enough evidence to support its use. Experts also are unsure of what risks taking black cohosh poses. Past studies suggested that black cohosh was harmful to the liver, but a more recent review of studies found no evidence that this is true. Researchers also question whether the herb extract is safe for women with or at risk of breast cancer.
- Phytoestrogens. These estrogens occur naturally in certain foods. Two main types of phytoestrogens are isoflavones and lignans. Isoflavones are found in soybeans, chickpeas and other legumes. Lignans occur in flaxseed, whole grains, and some fruits and vegetables. There are also plant-derived compounds that have estrogen-like properties.
Isoflavone supplements generally come from soy or red clover. Lignans come mainly from flaxseed. Studies on phytoestrogens — whether from food or supplements — conflict on whether they help reduce menopausal symptoms. Studies also conflict on whether it’s possible that phytoestrogens could increase the risk of breast cancer or interfere with the effectiveness of tamoxifen.
Bioidentical hormones. The term “bioidentical” implies the hormones in the product are chemically identical to those your body produces. However, compounded bioidentical hormones aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so quality and risks could vary. There’s also no evidence that compounded bioidentical hormones are safer or more effective than convention hormone therapy.
Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA). This natural steroid produced by your adrenal gland is available as a dietary supplement and has been used by some to improve sexual interest. But evidence on its effectiveness is mixed, and there are some concerns about possible harmful effects.
Low-risk complementary therapies, such as acupuncture, yoga and paced breathing may help reduce stress and improve psychological well-being. Research on acupuncture for decreasing hot flashes is inconclusive, but promising. Relaxation can help reduce stress, which may in turn help improve menopausal symptoms.
Talk with your doctor before taking any herbal or dietary supplements for perimenopausal or menopausal symptoms. The FDA does not regulate herbal products, and some can be dangerous or interact with other medications you take, putting your health at risk.