Menopause is the phase of a woman’s life that comes after her child-bearing years. There can be as little time as a few months or as much as a few years before this cycle fully begins. The process of menopause is normal but often misunderstood by everyone, including the women who are experiencing it.

Menopause occurs when a woman passes from the reproductive stage of her life. Her body no longer releases an egg from her ovaries each month and hormone production decreases. As a result of the lower hormone levels, other changes occur within the body that are not so pleasant to deal with.

Menopause usually begins some time after age 40. The exact time frame depends on your family history. Some women can start menopause early (before the age of 40) and some as late as their mid-50s. At any point during this time, your body gets ready to enter into menopause.

Menopause can occur earlier with surgery or chemotherapy. A hysterectomy is a surgical procedure used to remove the uterus with or without removal of the ovaries. If the ovaries are removed, hormone production is decreased right away, placing you in a menopausal state. The ovaries can also be damaged from chemotherapy or radiation. A damaged ovary will produce less hormone, leading to an early menopause.

The time before menopause is complete is called perimenopause. The body prepares itself for the cessation of reproduction. Women may experience irregular menstrual periods, hot flashes, irritability, night sweats and other symptoms. Perimenopause can last for a few months or more than a year. As hormone production continues to slow down, you may experience other symptoms closely related to menopause such as vaginal dryness, low sex drive, fatigue and sleeping difficulties.

It is during this perimenopause stage that many women get pregnant. Doctors will not officially say that menopause has begun until you have gone a full twelve months without a period. It is important to still use contraceptives at this point to avoid an unwanted surprise.

As stated above, fewer hormones are produced as a result of entering into menopause. The lower estrogen levels in the body contribute to a number of conditions you may not have had to deal with before. A few of concerns that women face are osteoporosis, heart disease, loss of muscle tone and bladder issues. We can do without all of these, but knowing helps us to prepare to avoid them.

Whether or not you are experiencing menopause can be diagnosed by your gynecologist. A simple blood test for hormone levels and a pap smear of the vagina will yield the results you need. Discuss with your doctor what to expect as you transition into full menopause and how to care for your body after menopause has occurred.