There’s no denying that menopause can be a difficult time for women for a variety of reasons. The average age for women to begin to experience menopause is 51, but the most common age range actually is between 48 and 55, and it can even begin earlier or later.

Perimenopause, or the period of time in a woman’s life in the years prior to menopause, is defined by lower levels of hormone production, and fluctuating levels of estrogen and progesterone. This typically begins in a woman’s 40s, and lasts an average of four years. It, too, can begin much earlier, though, with some women experiencing perimenopause in their 30s.

Perimenopause symptoms can include irregular periods, hot flashes, irritability, mood swings, trouble sleeping, extreme fatigue, weight gain and anxiety — just to name a few. These symptoms can become even more severe in the year or two immediately prior to the start of menopause. With all this to consider, it’s important for women to take steps to care for themselves during this phase of their lives.

Blount Memorial registered dietitian Angie Tillman says the first step every woman should take is to become close friends with her physician. “When these symptoms begin to appear, it’s critical that women see their doctor to rule out other potential causes,” she said. “Some symptoms can be similar to other health issues such as hypothyroidism, diabetes or pre-diabetes, depression and others, so it’s important to have regular check-ups and health screenings to rule those out. Also, if a woman is experiencing symptoms that have severely decreased her quality of life, it’s important for her to talk to her doctor about treatments that can help,” Tillman explained.

Second, Tillman says proper nutrition is key. “Whether you’re experiencing menopause symptoms or perimenopause symptoms, quality nutrition becomes extremely important,” she said. “Be sure you’re eating nutrient-dense foods including vegetables, fruits, quality protein sources and healthy fats. Certain nutrients such as magnesium, calcium and vitamin D become increasingly important. Calcium, magnesium and vitamin D can help with bone density as we age, and magnesium can sometimes help with stress and sleep,” she explained. “For most women, a reduction in carbohydrate intake is necessary especially highly processed carbohydrates and high-sugar foods. Weight gain often is correlated with perimenopause and menopause. This may be connected to dropping levels of estrogen. It is theorized that the body’s response to dropping estrogen is to store fat, particularly in the abdominal region. Fat stores increase the body’s production of estrogen in an attempt to make up for decreasing estrogen output from the ovaries. As you decrease carb intake, you also should increase your protein intake from quality protein sources, but often symptoms such as a lack of sleep and fatigue can make regular exercise and healthy eating more difficult,” Tillman added.

Speaking of sleep, Tillman says it should be a top priority to women during this time of their lives. “Sleep helps with stress management, appetite control and overall feelings of well-being,” she said. “Women should aim for eight hours most nights, which typically means going to bed earlier. Remember, it’s okay to seek professional help if you’re experiencing ongoing problems with insomnia, or sleep quality or quantity. Finally, it’s crucial that women remain active during perimenopause and menopause,” Tillman continued. “Being more physically active can help with symptoms such as fatigue and increased stress and anxiety. But, don’t neglect your strength training. Without purposeful strength training, most adults lose muscle mass each decade of aging. Because muscle mass is more metabolically active, these decreases in muscle mass can lower our metabolic rates by up to 5 percent each decade, leading to slow weight gain. Regular strength training can slow the metabolic decreases, slow muscle loss and help prevent weight gain. Weight-bearing exercise also is linked to higher bone mineral density at all ages,” she said. “With conscious decisions to prioritize health, this period can be a wonderful, active and healthy time in a woman’s life. Just remember to focus on positive and meaningful relationships, make time for laughter, make self-care a daily task, and just enjoy the wisdom that comes with ‘middle age,’” Tillman added.

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