How Is It Different from Menopause?

What is perimenopause? If you’re confused about the difference between perimenopause and menopause, and don’t know the exact definition of either term, you’re not alone. Most women have some general knowledge about menopause, but many aren’t familiar with the term perimenopause. It’s not a term that’s been around for long. In fact it originated in the 1970s and didn’t come into general use until more recently.

Perimenopause is defined by the Mayo Clinic as “the time during which your body makes the natural transition to menopause, marking the end of the reproductive years.”

Perimenopause is a gradual process that is initiated when the ovaries start producing less estrogen, usually in a woman’s 40s, but sometimes in her late 30s. The average length of perimenopause is four years, but it could end sooner or last longer, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Perimenopause ends when menopause begins. The beginning of menopause is defined as the time when 12 consecutive months have gone by without having a period. At that point, it’s safe to conclude that the ovaries are no longer releasing eggs and are producing much less estrogen.

During perimenopause, the ovaries are still releasing eggs and you still have periods. However, the periods start to become less regular as the amount of estrogen produced by the body declines. According to the Cleveland Clinic, in the perimenopause transition to menopause, you may experience:

  • Tender breasts
  • Worse PMS (premenstrual syndrome)
  • Irregular periods or skipping periods
  • Heavier or lighter periods

Some women have always had irregular periods, so for them, irregularity is normal. If you fall into that category, and aren’t sure whether you’re beginning “the change,” you may experience some of the other symptoms mentioned above. Also look for ways your periods might be different from those you’ve had in the past. For example, you may have always had variations in the time between periods, but the number of days they last has been consistent. If that changes, it’s something new for you.

During the last year or two of perimenopause, the amount of estrogen produced drops more quickly. That’s when many women start to experience some of the symptoms that menopause is known for, including:

  • Hot flashes
  • Lower libido (sex drive)
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Memory lapses
  • Weight gain
  • Hair loss
  • Aches and pains in joints and muscles

You may not experience some of the symptoms mentioned above at all. Your sex drive may be better than ever, your memory could still be as sharp as a tack, and you may not experience a single hot flash. There are a lot of menopause myths floating around. One myth is that every woman has one or two of the specific symptoms above. You may hear, “every woman has hot flashes,” or “you’ll definitely gain some weight and lose some hair.” But these aren’t true. Perimenopause is not experienced in the same way by all women. There are significant variations from one woman to the next. If you’re unsure about whether or not perimenopause has started, it’s possible for your doctor to check your hormone levels with a blood test.

The signs of perimenopause can continue for a while after menopause begins. However, there are ways to relieve them:

  • There are herbal supplements available, some have been subjected to clinical trials, although not all of them have data behind them. One that does is Relizen, which is endorsed by many doctors.
  • Some lifestyle changes can make a difference, such as eating a healthy diet and eliminating certain foods that can make symptoms worse, getting more exercise, and eliminating or at least cutting down on drinking alcoholic beverages and smoking.
  • There are also prescription drugs that can help alleviate symptoms by supplementing the lower levels of hormones produced by the body during perimenopause.

While the symptoms of perimenopause can be uncomfortable and hard to live with, the downward shift in hormone levels that gradually occurs in perimenopause doesn’t make you any less healthy. This phase of changing hormones is a natural and normal transition from child-bearing years to a new phase of life.

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