You haven’t had your period for a few months. You have taken several pregnancy tests - all of them came back negative. In addition, you’ve been experiencing hot flashes. When you confided in a friend, she joked that you might be going through menopause. But you’re only 32, so it can’t be menopause, right?
Well, one per cent of women start experiencing the symptoms of menopause before they turn 40. The average age for women to start experiencing menopause is 51. However the process begins with perimenopause, a period of natural decline in the reproductive hormones.
Women usually experience perimenopausal symptoms, such as irregular periods and hot flashes, in their 40s. According to the experts, a woman is considered to be fully menopausal after missing 12 consecutive periods.
Premature or early menopause is when a woman reaches menopause before turning 40. This condition is pre-empted by premature ovarian failure (POF), which means that a woman’s ovaries have stopped working before the right age.
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Some women can develop POF as early as in their teenage years, while others develop the condition in their 20s and 30s.
The terms premature menopause and POF are often used interchangeably. However, POF can be intermittent, meaning that a woman suffering from the condition might still be able to get pregnant, especially through technologies such as IVF. But once a woman has missed 12 straight periods, there’s no chance of getting pregnant.
What causes early menopause?
When a woman undergoes premature menopause, it might be difficult to pin down its root cause. In as many as 90 per cent of cases, a woman never gets to know what caused her to have premature menopause. That said, here are some of the main causes of premature menopause:
Removal of ovaries
In some cases, premature menopause is brought on by surgical removal of the ovaries. This procedure is usually done when a woman has a BRCA gene mutation which can lead to cancer of the reproductive system.
For instance, this is one of the procedures Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie had after testing positive for cancer indicators. Ovary removal results in a dramatic drop in oestrogen and other female hormones, which brings on premature menopause.
It is genetic
If your mother, grandmother, or sister has experienced premature menopause, you’re at an increased risk of experiencing it too. Premature menopause seems to have some genetic causes. A 2011 study published the Journal of Inherited Metabolic Disease found that in 28 per cent of premature menopause cases have genetic origins.
You might also have premature menopause if you have genetic disorders such as Fragile X syndrome, the most common form of inherited intellectual impairment. If your genes have the gene mutation, even if you don’t have Fragile X syndrome, you might have primary ovarian insufficiency, which leads to premature menopause.
This genetic disorder is responsible for one in 33 cases of premature menopause, according to a report by the American National institute of Health.
Turner Syndrome, where a woman has only one X chromosome, is a genetic disorder that also causes premature menopause.
Women with autoimmune disorders are also at increased risk of experiencing premature menopause. Autoimmune disorders such as thyroiditis (which causes inflammation of the thyroid gland) and Addison’s Disease (which causes the adrenal glands to not produce enough hormones, have been linked to premature menopause.
These autoimmune disorders can cause your immune system to attack the follicles in your ovaries, messing up with their normal function and leading to early menopause.
Exposure to toxins contained in cigarette smoke and pesticides can also bring on POF. A woman is usually born with enough primordial follicles to last her throughout her natural reproductive age. However, exposure to toxins can deplete these follicles prematurely, leading to POF.
Chemotherapy or radiation
Just like environmental toxins, cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation can also damage the genetic material in a woman’s ovaries.
Factors such as the type of drug and the dose of radiation, the area of the body radiated, and your age at the time of treatment determine the level of damage to your ovaries.
Some women might develop premature menopause years after getting cancer treatment, while others might never develop POF.
Symptoms of early menopause
Going through menopause, whether prematurely or on time, has the same signs and symptoms. It is important to note that these symptoms can also be caused other fixable health problems. Consult your doctor for proper examination and diagnosis.
If your monthly period seems to be playing a hide-and-seek game with you, this is usually a good indicator of ovulation-related problems.
As a woman ages, ovulation might occur earlier in the cycle. This might cause shorter cycles and missed periods. If you have noticed a worrying irregularity in your monthly period, talk to your gynaecologist for a check up.
Experiencing hot flashes is one of the most common symptoms of menopausal onset. Hot flashes can also manifest as night sweats, which can disrupt your nightly sleep and lead to insomnia. You might experience hot flashes once a day or as often as every hour. Fortunately, hot flashes can be alleviated through hormone therapy, prescription medication, and alternative medicine.
The onset of menopause leads to a drop in levels of the hormone oestrogen, which is responsible for maintaining the vagina’s natural lubrication. If you experience this symptom, you can use lube to make sex less uncomfortable.
Hormonal changes that come with menopause might also cause to mood swings. You might feel overly emotional and likely to snap at the slightest annoyance.