Summer comes with the expectation of fun and relaxation, but for women going through menopause, hot summer days can mean misery and discomfort. The hot and humid weather may cause menopausal symptoms to worsen.
There is hope, says Dr. Nicole Doghor, a reproductive psychiatrist at Texas Children’s Pavilion for Women. Menopause is a chapter of life when women should seize the opportunity to take care of themselves.
Dr. Doghor, who also serves as the education and training coordinator for the reproductive psychiatry department, shares five symptoms of menopause, why they occur and what women can do to keep themselves healthy.
Hot flashes are extremely common in 75% to 80% of women who have menopause. Five percent of women suffer from hot flashes for more than a decade. Therefore, it’s very important that women learn to manage this symptom.
Hot flashes are caused by a decrease in estrogen, which causes your internal thermostat (hypothalamus) to become more sensitive to slight changes in body temperature. When the hypothalamus thinks your body is too warm, it starts a chain of events — a hot flash — to cool you down.
What’s the best way to manage a hot flash?
Hot flashes can be made more bearable by wearing lightweight clothing in the summer, drinking an adequate amount of water and keeping handheld fans close by.
Since flashes occur due to hormone imbalances, hormone replacement therapy is recommended. Hormone replacement therapy is a series of medications that contain female hormones. The medication is taken to replace the estrogen that your body stops producing during menopause.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, a form of psychological treatment, can also be helpful when managing the anxiety and stress that comes with menopause. Your doctor can recommend — and make referrals — for both of these treatments.
Summer is the season of graduations, vacations and family gatherings; all of which normally involve a lot of food. For women whose estrogen levels have dropped, and subsequently their metabolism has slowed, it is even more important to avoid overeating.
Weight gain as we age can lead to high blood pressure, diabetes and a variety of other illnesses. This weight gain often takes place in the abdominal area.
What is the best way to avoid or manage weight gain?
We have all learned the importance of diet and exercise — and it really does boil down to that. Women in menopause need to make nutrition a priority by eating plenty of fruit, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds, olive oil as a primary fat source and dairy products that include eggs. Approximately half a gallon or two liters of water should be consumed daily.
I suggest that women start consistently lifting weights and participating in resistance training. It’s best for women to start lifting weights in their early 40s to build on the muscle they already have. By the time a woman turns 50, the muscle tissue is already in decline and you won’t get as much benefit.
Building muscle produces an estrogen-mimicking effect that helps regulate metabolism. The more muscle is built, the better a woman’s metabolism helps to burn fat.
During the summer, high temperatures can add to sleep discomfort. The challenge of keeping your bedroom cool can certainly contribute to a restless night. Hot flashes and night sweats, as well as an inability to mentally turn off the list of obligations, also invite insomnia.
The average age in the U.S. for menopause onset is 51 years old. In addition to the biological changes that are happening, this is also the time in life when women are raising children and may also be caring for aging parents. Concerns about care for the people in their lives can increase anxiety and make it difficult to have a good night of sleep. In addition, women may be at the height of their careers when the responsibilities and pressures are heavier than ever before.
How do women begin sleeping better?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help women handle the stresses in their lives and therefore promote a better night’s sleep. I recommend medications and supplements such as sleep aids to help the body relax.
I also tell my patients that women should work to protect the bedroom. Our bedrooms should be reserved for sleep and should not be treated as a second living room. A more peaceful room signals to the body that the bedroom is a place solely for relaxation.
Make sure to keep the room cool with proper ventilation, central air conditioning or portable fans to combat the high summer temperatures.
Depression during the Summer
After understanding all of the hormonal changes that come with menopause, it is no surprise that depression can sometimes occur. These hormonal shifts (less estrogen in the body), along with stressors common to mid-life can trigger depressive symptoms. Tearfulness, increased irritability, lowered frustration tolerance, interpersonal problems, hopelessness and appetite changes are all common depressive symptoms.
The summer brings longer days and possible changes to the daily routine. If women have children in grade school, they are suddenly faced with keeping them occupied and engaged in meaningful and enjoyable activities all day. If the children are in college, they — and all their boxes — may be back home after nine months away.
Vacations can also disrupt work, sleep and eating habits, which can contribute to summer depression.
What is the solution for summer depression?
Your doctor can prescribe a variety of medications and therapies based on your individual needs. Hormone replacement medications as well as anti-depressants can help. In addition, making sure that you plan your summer instead of living day by day, or week by week, can be helpful. Planning can help to reduce stress.
And, finally, I always recommend to women that they have a minimum of four hours a week to themselves. Four hours a week should be devoted to something you want to do that is not attached to an obligation or responsibility for someone else. These hours could be spent on activities such as:
Reading a book
Taking a long bath
Self-care is a term that is often used these days. However, when women dedicate the time to take care of themselves, it is more than self-care. It is called self-preservation.
For more information or to schedule an appointment at Texas Children’s Menopause Center, call 832-826-5281 or 832-826-7500.