During menopause, it may seem that your body is betraying you just when you need its resources the most. Your high-energy life runs out of steam. For reasons you can’t explain through external events, you feel like you’re running in slow motion. Your mind and heart just aren’t in your work, your family, or your friends. You struggle to muster enough enthusiasm to get out of bed in the morning, you drag yourself through your day, and you feel wiped out by the day’s end. What’s up with this? For many women, it’s more a matter of what’s down. Those dropping hormone levels can make you feel down and blue.
The Season of SADness
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression linked to the diminishing amount of natural light during the winter months. Many experts believe that this is because natural light helps regulate the pineal gland’s production of melatonin, a hormone that causes drowsiness. In the cycle of nature, the pineal gland produces more melatonin when darkness falls, encouraging sleep at night. When the light of dawn breaks, the pineal gland reduces melatonin production. Bright natural light also appears to increase your body’s production of serotonin, one of the neurotransmitters in your brain. People with depression often have low serotonin levels.
Tanning beds do not help with SAD. The ultraviolet lights of tanning beds are intended to stimulate skin cells to produce melanin, the substance that causes the skin’s pigmentation to darken. These lights are harmful to the eyes (and to the skin).
Seasonal affective disorder is not necessarily related to menopause. However, the likelihood for developing SAD increases with age. This may result in SAD emerging at the same time a woman is entering menopause, giving the appearance of a connection. Because some of the signs of menopause are the same as the symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, women who have SAD often find that menopause makes their symptoms worse. Most people with seasonal affective disorder respond well to treatment with special lights designed to mimic the intensity and spectrum of natural sunlight.
It can take as long as three months for antidepressant drugs to reign in the symptoms of depression. It is usually necessary to take these medications for six months to a year after your symptoms disappear. Interactions with other medications, including over-the-counter drugs, can cause serious problems. Always check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking any other drugs when you’re taking an antidepressant.
More Than the Blues: Depression
It’s normal for everyone to feel down in the dumps now and then. Things happen that make us sad or angry or frustrated. Most of the time, we work through these feelings and return to our normal, cheerful selves. How long this takes depends on the individual and on the situation: Recovering from the death of a loved one may take several months to a year or longer, while getting over a reprimand by the boss may take until lunch. But when the stresses of life become overwhelming, or when deep sadness and hopelessness occur without apparent reason, the problem could be clinical depression, not just the blues.
Serotonin is a natural neurotransmitter found in the brain that is related to feelings of well-being as well as depression. Melatonin is a natural hormone that causes sleepiness.
Depression is a potentially serious medical condition that requires treatment. Although it’s a common perception that menopause brings on increased rates of depression, studies fail to show a very distinctive correlation. Depression seems related to other biochemical functions, or malfunctions, in the brain. Often serotonin levels are low and melatonin levels are high in people suffering from clinical depression. The same correlation sometimes exists in women experiencing menopause, leading to interest in the relationship between estrogen and depression. So far, however, most studies show that depression is no more common among women at or beyond menopause than in women who are fertile.
Most experts agree that menopause does not cause depression. Certain events related to menopause can establish a setting that allows depression to more easily develop, however. Sleeping problems, for example, prevent your body and mind from getting needed rest and recovery from the stresses of everyday life. This can lead to the feelings of sadness and hopelessness that characterize depression. Treatment for depression aims at relieving the symptoms and addressing their underlying causes. In some situations, this involves restoring the brain’s chemical balances through antidepressant medications such as Zoloft or Prozac, which increase serotonin levels in the brain. Some women prefer not to take antidepressant medications, instead finding relief through psychotherapy and behavioral therapy. And nonaddictive sleep aids can sometimes help provide enough relaxation to foster restful sleep. Be sure to use such products according to the label’s instructions, and see your doctor if your sleep difficulties continue.
If you have any combination of the following signs of depression for more than two weeks, it’s time to see your doctor or psychologist:
- Feelings of sadness, anxiety, emptiness, or hopelessness
- Problems going to sleep or staying asleep, or waking up early and being unable to go back to sleep
- Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Increased or decreased appetite
- Trouble remembering things, making decisions, or focusing
- Uncontrolled crying
- Thoughts of suicide or feelings that life isn’t worth living