Is It More Than a Hot Flash?

We’ve all heard the stories about the symptoms of menopause—hot flashes, mood swings—but what if you’re a young woman, say in her 30s and you’re experiencing these symptoms? You may be experiencing premature menopause.

By Angela E. Thomas

Is it more than a hot flash? Early menopause symptoms
 

Premature menopause, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), affects about one percent of women under 40 years of age.

“The technical term we use most often is primary ovarian insufficiency,” said Dr. Leticia Jones, obstetrician/gynecologist and owner of Genesis Women’s Clinic in Little Rock.

“It’s also referred to as premature ovarian failure and occurs when a woman’s ovaries stop working. Most often primary ovarian insufficiency occurs as a result of surgery or chemotherapy and radiation. However, some women may experience this due to chromosome issues, such as Turner syndrome or problems with their endocrine system (Turner syndrome is a condition in which a girl is born missing or partially missing the X chromosome). Typically, we’ll see this in women who haven’t ever had a period or who stop having their period in their 20s.”

Jones recommends women seek medical attention if they’ve not had a period for three months. “We’ll perform a full exam including testing for increased testosterone production, decreased estrogen production, and check her follicle-stimulating hormone levels and her thyroid.

These tests will tell us what’s going on between the pituitary gland and the ovaries.” Jones said women who are experiencing primary ovarian insufficiency are prescribed hormone replacement therapy (HRT), but not due to the same reasons as women who undergo menopause at the typical or average age, which is 51.

“We treat them with HRT to help prevent osteoporosis due to bone loss and to help prevent cardiovascular disease,” she said. The treatment and type of HRT differs as well.

Typically, if a woman has experienced a complete menopause, it’s irreversible; however, she can have children using donor eggs or in vitro fertilization, Jones said. If the premature menopause has been caused by chemotherapy and/or radiation, depending on the woman’s age and where she received treatment, her body may recover and return to its normal function.

Becca Tally was just 38 when she underwent a total hysterectomy. She had endured years of pain due to endometriosis. “I had very heavy periods, sometimes they’d last a month, and the pain from cramping was extreme. It was off the scale, and I had pain at other times. I’d experience pain when using the restroom. I remember holding on the walls while urinating and just crying,” Tally said.

Her doctor prescribed birth control twice, to no avail; the first time, she said, she bled for three months, the second time she vomited nonstop.

We’ve all heard the stories about the symptoms of menopause—hot flashes, mood swings—but what if you’re a young woman, say in her 30s and you’re experiencing these symptoms? You may be experiencing premature menopause.

“I visited my gynecologist in February 2009 and begged him to ‘fix me,’” Tally said. She had a total hysterectomy on April Fool’s Day 2009. “It was the easiest, difficult decision I’ve ever made,” she said.

To deal with her experience, she blogged. Soon after the surgery she realized she’d become depressed, so she took antidepressants for a short time. “A few weeks later, I was standing in my kitchen, washing dishes, and I realized I was listening to birds chirping. I knew then I’d be OK.”

Tally has taken HRT now and then, however, she had heart palpitations, so the doctors took her off the medication. “Oh, yes. I went into full-fledged menopause, and it was bad for a while,” she said. “But my advice to women is to accept it, know the symptoms, and don’t be embarrassed about it.” She also recommends sleeping under cotton sheets or a lightweight cotton blanket. “And always keep the ceiling fan on,” Tally said, laughing, “no matter what your husband says.”

Dr. Jones said a hot flash or two twice a week is typical. “However  if the symptoms are unbearable or embarrassing, there’s no need to suffer through it. Talk to your doctor. Also, watch for triggers, such as stress, alcohol or caffeine, and limit those. Avoid saturated and trans fats. Incorporate soy into your diet, and increase your calcium intake.”

She said exercise also helps. “It helps with cardiovascular health, and weight-bearing exercises will help protect your bones. It’s also been proven to help with depression in addition to helping mitigate weight gain.”

EXERCISE TO EASE SYMPTOMS

Kris Mougeot has been a certified fitness instructor since the 1990s and the 55-year-old, who all but breezed through menopause, said exercise made a world of difference for her. “I’ve been an instructor for a few years now, so I’ve established a following of students. We’ve aged together, and those of us who consistently exercise didn’t really suffer from the effects of menopause as others have,” she said.

Mougeot welcomed menopause: “It’s nice not to have to worry about my period and needing a tampon when on the go. I can be hiking on a mountain in South America and not have to worry about such things.” She added, “I’m also a healthy eater. I eat nutritiously dense foods, fruits and vegetables. I don’t drink soda, though I do enjoy a glass of wine occasionally.”

Mougeot teaches hour-long classes at the Little Rock Athletic Club and works out every day for 60 to 90 minutes—“I’m not talking 47,000 burpees here, but yoga, walking, weight-bearing exercises”—and as a result, she didn’t experience hot flashes or weight gain. “Listen, it’s nothing heroic, just healthy living and a lifestyle I really enjoy.”