Perimenopause is the time in a woman's life in which the ovaries start to produce less estrogen, but full menopause has not yet begun. This stage can last months or years. There are a variety of perimenopause symptoms that can occur during the 30s, 40s and 50s. For some women, however, perimenopause can start earlier or later. Each case is different with some women experiencing severe symptoms, while others have no symptoms at all.
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Before entering perimenopause, every month a woman's body prepares for pregnancy. The wall of the uterus thickens in preparation for ovulation, the time when a mature egg is released for fertilization. If pregnancy does not occur, then the lining of the uterine wall and the unfertilized egg is shed during menstruation.
While perimenopause can occur earlier or later, it tends to start as a woman reaches the 30s and 40s. During this time, the body transitions towards the end of the reproductive years and ovulation becomes less frequent, says MayoClinic.com. This can lead to missed periods and menstrual cycles that are lighter, heavier or shorter then normal.
The ability to become pregnant starts to decline and vaginal dryness may occur. The vaginal area may become thinner, itchy and sore which can lead to a loss of sexual desire. True menopause, however, does not begin until there has been no period for 12 consecutive months. During perimenopause, it is still possible for a woman to become pregnant.
As the levels of the hormones estrogen and progesterone start to drop, hot flashes and night sweats may occur, warns the National Woman's Health Information Center. While the exact cause of hot flashes and night sweats is still not well understood, it appears to be related to the drop in estrogen.
Adequate levels of estrogen are necessary in order to regulate a part of the brain called the hypothalamus. This structure has many functions including regulating body temperature. When estrogen levels are low, the hypothalamus may inappropriately signal the body that it is too hot. This causes a rush of blood and heat to the surface, resulting in a hot flash.
During perimenopause, some women may find relief through taking birth control pills prescribed by a physician. Birth control combined with exercise and eating healthy may help to keep symptoms under control.
Changes in mood and emotions may occur during perimenopause, which may be due to the hormonal fluctuations in the body. The Association of Reproductive Health Professionals suggests that the life changes occurring during this period such as children leaving home, care giving for aging parents or changes in career and living arrangements can also cause swings in emotions. For some women, perimenopause can also lead to a disruption in sleep, which can leave a woman tired and susceptible to mood swings.
The Harvard University Medical School states that some women experience changes in memory and the ability to concentrate during perimenopause. This may be related to a drop in estrogen and progesterone levels, which can affect the ability of the brain to function properly. More studies are needed, however, to differentiate the changes in memory due to perimenopause versus the changes that occur with age.