Medical mystery or menopause? Odd change-of-life conditions are creating lots of confusion.
By Meryl Davids Landau
Leanne Emerson was 37 when she stepped into an elevator and, for the first time, felt claustrophobic and short of breath. More panic attacks struck -- in cars, theaters, bustling restaurants. "My heart would pound, I'd feel lightheaded, and my limbs would go numb," says the operations manager from Port Hueneme, California. When Emerson googled her symptoms, she found other women linking similar anxiety to perimenopause -- the stage of fluctuating hormones before the menstrual cycle ceases. When Emerson's periods ended, at age 48, the panic attacks soon stopped as well.
While hot flashes and night sweats are familiar menopause symptoms, many women swear their gyrating hormones cause a host of other unusual problems. The menopause website Power-Surge.com lists 34 reported conditions, including sore joints, dizziness, a "burning tongue," heart palpitations, and "buzzing sensations" in the head.
Yet many physicians don't connect such complaints with menopause, largely because research tends to focus on obvious manifestations like hot flashes -- and even these are poorly understood. "We certainly know more than we did a decade ago, but there's a lot to uncover," says Ellen W. Freeman, PhD, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center whose own study of 400 midlife women hasn't investigated the less common symptoms reported by subjects.
Menopause researcher Nanette Santoro, MD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Colorado Denver, notes that estrogen receptors are ubiquitous in the body, so hormonal fluctuations may indeed be felt almost anywhere. That sounds about right to Lisa Knapp, a 49-year-old Danbury, Connecticut, marketing coordinator, who in the past five years has battled achy joints, increased seasonal allergies, irritability, anxiety, the sudden inability to breathe, and an "internal shaking" sensation. She's hoping her problems will ease with the end of menstruation.
Of course, women experiencing any symptoms should talk with their doctors, says Santoro, who's seen problems ranging from joint pain to dizziness disappear when her perimenopausal patients start hormone therapy. Physicians might also prescribe medicines -- antidepressants, allergy pills, or joint-pain creams -- for individual conditions.
Many women say just knowing their strange symptoms are likely linked to fluctuating hormones can help. When her anxiety first struck, Emerson thought she was losing her mind. But hearing other women share similar stories normalized the weirdness. "Even though my symptoms remained, I felt much better emotionally after understanding this wasn't happening to just me," she says.
A Test To Pinpoint Menopause?
One day it may be possible to find out if you're genetically predisposed to early menopause (beginning at or before age 45), which is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. In October 2010, scientists from the University of Exeter and the Institute of Cancer Research in England published a study identifying four genetic variants that increase the chances of early menopause. The finding could lead to a test that would forecast the point at which a woman's fertility declines (which typically precedes menopause by a decade).
Related on HuffPost: 10 Natural Treatments For Menopause
<a href="http://skincarebyroxy.blogspot.com/2010/08/menopause-and-treatment.html">"Exercise is absolutely critical,"</a> says Susan Moores, a registered dietician. Exercise can be a powerful sleep aid, combating the sleep disturbances many women complain about. It has been shown to improve the whole gamut of menopause symptoms from hot flashes to mood swings. She says not to just focus on aerobic exercise, but also try strength training and relaxation techniques, such as <a href="http://body.aol.com/fitness/yoga" target="_hplink">yoga</a>.
"Flaxseed falls in the same camp as soy for the phytoestrogens," says Susan Moores, a registered dietician. One study by the Mayo Clinic found the incidence of hot flashes was reduced as much as 50 percent by consuming flaxseed. It is also thought to be very promising because, along with phytoestrogens, it also contains omega-3 fatty acids, which can aid in mood stabilization. According to <a href="http://body.aol.com/alternative-medicine/flaxseed" target="_hplink">A.D.A.M.</a>, an online health content provider, when compared to hormone replacement therapy, 40 grams of flaxseed was reported to be equally as effective in reducing hot flashes, vaginal dryness and mood disturbances.
Two German studies have shown black cohosh to be effective in reducing hot flashes, according to <a href="http://body.aol.com/alternative-medicine/black-cohosh" target="_hplink">A.D.A.M.</a> One study in particular showed 80 percent of women saw a decrease in hot flashes while using black cohosh. However, no long-term studies have been done and there have been reports of side-effects including upset stomach and low blood pressure, caution the experts at <a href="http://body.aol.com/menopause/learn-about-it/treating-menopausal-symptoms/herbal-products" target="_hplink">Harvard Medical School</a>.
This over-the-counter cure uses progesterone or progesterone-like compounds as the active ingredient. "Natural progesterone is a hormone and it works," says <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/womens-health/specialist/marcie-richardson/index.aspx">Dr. Marcie Richardson,</a> obstetrician and gynecologist at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates and Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston. "Skin creams that contain extracts of Mexican wild yams have been widely promoted for natural menopause relief for years," says <a href="http://body.aol.com/menopause/learn-about-it/treating-menopausal-symptoms/over-the-counter-products" target="_hplink">Harvard Medical School</a>. However, because of variation among products and the individual nature of skin's responsiveness, this method is not recommended by the <a href="http://www.menopause.org/" target="_hplink">North American Menopause Society</a>, says Harvard. There's no safety data on this hormone, Dr. Richardson cautions. Learn more about the risks and benefits <a href="http://body.aol.com/menopause/learn-about-it/treating-menopausal-symptoms/over-the-counter-products" target="_hplink">here</a>.
Red clover is often used to reduce vaginal dryness and decrease hot flashes. The effectiveness of red clover is thought to be due to a plant-chemical, isoflavones, which has an estrogen-like effect in the body. However, according to <a href="http://body.aol.com/menopause/learn-about-it/treating-menopausal-symptoms/herbal-products" target="_hplink">Harvard Medical School</a>, research results have been disappointing. Two studies published in the journal 'Menopause' found that women fared no better with red clover than a placebo for both hot flashes and vaginal dryness. Learn more about red clover <a href="http://body.aol.com/menopause/learn-about-it/treating-menopausal-symptoms/herbal-products" target="_hplink">here</a>.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Fish isn't just delicious; it contains a valuable ingredient that may help stabilize your mood swings too -- <a href="http://body.aol.com/alternative-medicine/omega-3-fatty-acids" target="_hplink">omega-3 fatty acids</a>. There have been some good studies to attest that omega-3 can help improve mood, says <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/womens-health/specialist/marcie-richardson/index.aspx">Dr. Marcie Richardson.</a> There's also growing research that omega-3 fatty acids help fight <a href="http://body.aol.com/condition-center/heart-disease" target="_hplink">heart disease</a>. The best way to add this key ingredient to your diet is by eating fatty fish like salmon, tuna and trout.
You wouldn't necessarily think that sticking needles in your body would be a helpful way to cure menopause symptoms, but when combined with other treatments, it can be helpful. Some controlled studies have shown some effectiveness in some woman for hot flashes, says <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/womens-health/specialist/marcie-richardson/index.aspx">Dr. Marcie Richardson.</a> According to <a href="http://body.aol.com/alternative-medicine/acupuncture" target="_hplink">A.D.A.M.</a>, "both the World Health Organization and the National Institutes of Health recognize that acupuncture can be a helpful part of a treatment plan" for many illnesses, including menopausal symptoms.
There has been a study, which showed a slight effect in decreasing hot flashes for women using vitamin E, says Dr. <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/womens-health/specialist/marcie-richardson/index.aspx">Marcie Richardson.</a> Along with reducing hot flashes vitamin E may carry with it extra benefits, such as fending off <a href="http://body.aol.com/conditions/age-related-macular-degeneration/topic-overview" target="_hplink">macular degeneration</a>, lowering blood pressure, and slowing the aging of cells and tissues according to <a href="http://body.aol.com/alternative-medicine/vitamin-e" target="_hplink">A.D.A.M</a>.
Cutting Down On Alcohol
Who hasn't felt the negative effects of drinking too much alcohol, such as trouble sleeping or feeling flushed? This goes double for women during menopause. The thing about alcohol is: women metabolize it worse than men and we metabolize it worse as we age, says <a href="http://www.everydayhealth.com/womens-health/specialist/marcie-richardson/index.aspx">Dr. Marcie Richardson.</a> According to <a href="http://body.aol.com/menopause/learn-about-it/menopause-and-healthy-living/alcohol" target="_hplink">Harvard Medical School</a>, alcohol can act as a trigger for hot flashes. And if that wasn't enough to ward you off the bottle, studies show that consuming alcohol regularly ups your risk for other conditions like<a href="http://body.aol.com/condition-center/breast-cancer" target="_hplink"> breast cancer</a> and <a href="http://body.aol.com/condition-center/stroke" target="_hplink">stroke</a>.