Monday, November 08, 2004

Will I be in menopause?

Women making plans for a hysterectomy often ask whether having a hyst will mean that they will go through menopause and what that will mean for them if they do. I can tell you right away that if you have your ovaries removed, you will, irrespective of your age, be in menopause when you wake up from anesthesia. If you retain your ovaries, you stand a good chance of postponing menopause for some undefined time, but as we've previously looked at here, there's no guarantee just how long that time will be.

This might be a good place to define just what menopause really is. Menopause is nothing more than your levels of ovarian hormones dropping below that level that supports fertility. When menopause happens naturally (that is, without surgical intervention), our ovaries don't just throw a switch and never produce another hormone again. Instead, a long slow decline begins a decade or more before actual menopause and continues for many years, if not decades after that. Menopause is simply one point on that long slope of hormone output, even if it happens to be one we can clearly see because we stop having periods. Because a woman in natural menopause continues to produce lower levels of hormones that continue to support her remaining, non-fertile hormone needs, she may not have very many or very disruptive symptoms.

But in surgical menopause, when our ovaries are removed, we go from ovarian function (either fertile or naturally menopaused, depending where we are preoperatively) to no ovarian output at all. That doesn't mean we have no hormones at all, however. In menopause, our belly fat contains special cells that can produce a weak estrogen called estrone. Our adrenal glands can also make estrogen from other hormone precursors, although the amount we can produce that way is somewhat dependent upon what other competing tasks the adrenal glands are facing at any particular moment. Whether or not that is enough remaining capacity to meet our non-fertile hormone needs or not, it is definitely enough of a drop that we should be considered menopausal.

Does menopause mean I'm just going to become old and wrinkled and sexless overnight?

No. That depends upon your genetic makeup (how women in your family age at menopause might be a helpful clue for what you can expect) and how well your hormone needs are met in menopause. No matter how you get there, menopause is a major life change—the biggest one we experience after puberty. This signals a number of things to your body and will affect a variety of metabolic systems. You most likely will lose collagen and find that your skin gradually becomes dryer, more delicate and more prone to showing wrinkles, although how rapidly this develops may be somewhat mitigated by genetics and meeting hormone needs. It's typical that our body shape changes as we take over estrogen production with belly fat: we may thicken in the middle and find that metabolic down-setting causes us to gain weight that it is difficult to lose without dietary modification and exercise. And there are other changes that may slowly develop. While we're not plunged into elderly bodies overnight, the fertile part of our lives is over and this will signal changes.

Do I really have to take HRT for menopause? If it only lasts a few months, can't I just put up with the hot flashes and wait it out? I really hate to take drugs if I don't have to.

First of all, let's dispose of that "only a few months" myth. Somehow, doctors have convinced themselves that it only takes a few months to adjust to menopausal hormone levels and thus recommendations for the use of hrts are for just long enough to make this transition. But this is a gross oversimplification for many women, and especially so for those without ovaries. In fact, there are two aspects of menopause that determine how it affects us and how long those effects last.

In terms of overall experience of menopause, the suddenness of the transition definitely affects the number and severity of symptoms we experience. Our bodies don't really approve of hormonal fluctuations, and the sharper the fluctuation, the more dramatically our bodies will express their disapproval with symptoms. An especially rapid change prevents us from making the many small, slow accommodations to life with low estrogen levels and estrogen provided by non-ovarian means. Generally speaking, a surgical menopause is a much greater challenge to the stability our bodies want and will cause more symptoms from the transition.

The other aspect of symptoms has to do with how well our remaining hormone needs are being met. Remaining needs? Yes, our ovarian hormones do many things besides prepare our uterus to receive a fertilized egg. In fact, they are used throughout our bodies in nearly every system. I can't go into all of these details here, but you can read much more about hormones and what they do at the Survivor's Guide to Surgical Menopause. I would encourage any woman facing surgical menopause to read through this material, as this is an important topic for our ongoing health and one we typically know very little about.

The thing about hormone needs is that while they may decrease with age, they do not disappear altogether. So if you are failing to meet your hormone needs, then you can expect symptoms to persist. You don't "get over" the need for basic bodily processes, and if you never provide the support your body needs to carry them out, you'll continue to experience the symptoms of those systems malfunctioning.

But it's also very important not to confuse HRT with drugs. It's easy to do, since they both require a doctor's prescription to obtain and they both are manufactured by pharmaceutical companies. But a drug does something to interfere with a normal body process, with the intent thereby of "fixing" something that is being a problem for us. In the case of hormones, however, we're not interfering with a normal process; we're providing the raw materials to support normal function in the face of a surgically-induced shortage. Taking supplemental ovarian hormones is more akin to someone who is hypothyroid taking thyroid hormone supplements or someone who is diabetic taking insulin (another hormone). HRTs are just different forms of either our exact hormones or a near-match chemical that has similar actions in the body.

Whether or not you need to take hormones (and I include in this category prescription, non-prescription and food sources: if it can act to meet hormone needs in the body, it is an HRT) is pretty much up to you and what you define as the level of health and comfort you wish to experience during menopause. If taking hormones is more distasteful to you than hot flashes and other symptoms, there's really no reason you have to take them. There can be some pretty serious risks to health on either side of the take-or-not HRT question, so you should research hormone actions, consider them in the light of your own personal health risk profile, and decide for yourself how you want to deal with hormone needs. There are drugs that can alleviate some of the symptoms of hormone deficit and there are other health practices that can help limit some of the risks. It's all up to you how you choose to deal with these needs.

And of course we've all heard of the happy, healthy elder who never took hormones and was just fine. I'm really delighted for her, but I have to point out that this cannot be achieved by force of will. We have little control over how well our body is genetically programmed to cope with supplying hormone needs. If yours isn't up to the task, you're not a failure and I would hope you don't punish yourself with guilt. Hormone needs, I repeat, represent basic physical processes, not optional comfort measures. We are not wimps when we choose health and wellbeing in our menopausal years.

I've heard that I should get my hormone levels checked before surgery, so that I can just take enough HRT afterwards to get back to where I know I was feeling good.

Sure, you can spend a few hundred dollars to be tested. But unfortunately, premenopausal hormone levels fluctuate constantly, perimenopausal hormone levels fluctuate wildly, and even postmenopausal hormone levels are only a momentary snapshot. There's no way to know to what extent any hormone level test corresponds to how you feel because of that moment-to-moment variability. Furthermore, if you were fertile, your needs once you are no longer supporting fertility will not be the same. With no uterine cycling to support, that level of hormones will be a gross excess postop.

The other flaw with that premise is that you can look at a test and know how much to put back into the system in HRT. Alas, but it's not that simple. There are so many intersecting influences here that there is just no feasible correlation between levels and supplementation needs. I'm not going into the details here since the Survivor's Guide does it much more thoroughly. What I want to leave you with is the simple statement that it just doesn't work that way. If you want more about the why of it, you'll need to follow the discussions over there.

If it's being menopausal that makes me look old and ugly, can't I just take as many hormones as I used to have so that I stay young looking?

Nope, not a good idea. One of the things we learn in menopause with HRT is that while enough is wonderful, more than enough is hellish. Hormonal excess raises our risks of negative effects and causes some quite unpleasant, if not dangerous, symptoms. And regardless of the risks, HRT just can't turn back time. Your body recognizes ovarian loss or natural menopause as a life transition and behaves accordingly. While HRTs have come a long way since they were first introduced, they remain a relatively crude tool. You can't entirely fool your body with them and they won't reset the clock. Menopause awaits all women; the only part we get to pick is how we respond to the needs it creates.