Menopause is still a taboo subject, leaving women feeling ill-informed and unsupported. I have worked in Women’s Health for several years and yet 3 years ago as I started experiencing my first symptoms, I realised I knew very little about the menopause and I wasn’t on my own. Around 13 million women are going currently going through the menopause in the UK.
So here are the key things I think every woman should know about the menopause:
What is the menopause?
Firstly, it’s important we remember that the menopause is a normal, natural phase that all women will go through. It is not a disease and doesn’t have to be a horrible scary experience.
The clinical definition:
“Menopause is the permanent end of menstruation and fertility, defined as occurring 12 months after your last period”
But this doesn’t really tell the whole story. Firstly, you can’t know that you’ve reached menopause until after you’ve reached it, so it can be a very confusing time.
The average age for women to reach menopause in the UK is 51. However, changes start happening to our hormones in the 5-7 years leading up to the menopause. So many women experience symptoms in their early 40s (or sometimes younger) as part of the peri-menopause. But what does this mean?
Stages of the menopause:
- Perimenopause – refers to the years leading up to the menopause. As your hormones start to fluctuate you can experience many symptoms.
- Menopause – is actually just one day – 12 months after you have your last period
- Post-menopause – after that one day you are considered post-menopausal. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean you will be symptom free as some symptoms can last post menopause.
What you call each stage of the menopause doesn’t really matter and I often use the overriding term “menopause”. It is important to understand these stages and to know where you are within these stages as this can have an impact on your symptoms and medication options.
- Induced menopause – can occur any time from your first period and is when periods stop due to medical intervention. In particular, from surgery or cancer treatments that remove or seriously damage ovaries.
- Premature/Early menopause – is when your final period occurs before the age of 40/45. The treatment recommendations may be different for women reaching this stage sooner as this may present differing risks for future health. Your GP or health practitioner will support and advise you on key things you should be considering.
Main Challenges of the Menopause:
Some of the main challenges we face as women is this is still a topic that isn’t discussed enough. Information isn’t readily available and women feel ill-prepared for what is happening to their bodies. Every woman’s journey through the menopause is different, this means it can be challenging for us as women to know what to expect and for GPs and health practitioners who are presented with a variety of symptoms which vary in severity from woman to woman. Around 75% of women will experience menopausal symptoms and around 25% of women will experience such severe symptoms that it has a huge impact on their quality of life and their physical and mental well-being.
Some of the challenges many of the women I work with face is that they are considered too young to be having menopausal symptoms. If you know the average age in the UK for reaching menopause is 51, this helps in the understanding that women will be experiencing symptoms in their 40s. I wasn’t expecting this but knowing and understanding this is normal has been a real help.
The most commonly talked about symptoms of the menopause are Hot Flushes, Night Sweats, Irritability and Weight-gain but menopause can affect us in many different ways:
- Hot flushes
- Night sweats
- Heavy periods
- Poor sleep/waking in the night
- Chronic tiredness
- Panic attacks
- Feeling sad/depressed
- Memory loss/poor concentration
- Reduced sex drive (libido)
- Vaginal dryness, itchiness or discomfort during sex
- Stress incontinence (leakage when you laugh/jump/sneeze)
- Frequent urination
- Change in bowel movements (constipation/needing to go more often)
- Urinary tract infections
- Weight gain (especially around the stomach)
- Bloating/digestive issues
- Itching/crawling skin
- Sore breasts
- Stiff/achy joints
What was most surprising to me was the emotional impact of the menopause and the impact on mental cognition i.e. memory, brain fog etc.
This list of symptoms isn’t meant to scare you. On average, women normally struggle with around 7 symptoms. Knowing what is causing these symptoms, knowing what you’re going through is normal and knowing that this isn’t forever is a huge comfort to many of the women I work with.
So, what can you do to manage your menopause?
We encourage women to focus on 4 key areas
1) Knowing Your Way Through the Menopause
Knowledge is power. Knowing and understanding what is happening to your body and why is essential in managing your menopause.
2) Eating Your Way Through the Menopause
Now is the time to nourish your body, focusing on what feeds your body well which may mean cutting down/out on the things that don’t serve us well during the menopause i.e. alcohol, caffeine, processed sugar. However, now is also the time to be kind to yourself, lose the guilt and keep trying to make small changes every day.
3) Moving Your Way Through the Menopause
Physical activity is key to ensuring you’re healthy at any time but especially as your body goes through this transition. Focus should be on a good mix of cardio and resistance exercise that support good cardiac health and encourage good bone health. Also, a focus on restorative exercise such as Yoga and Pilates which help with balance and flexibility as well as relaxation and managing stress.
4) Thinking Your Way Through the Menopause
Our minds are so powerful and the way we think can have a huge impact on this journey. This is why CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) is now a recommended treatment for menopausal symptoms by the NHS. Unfortunately, due to funding it is not widely available but a lot of research by the British Menopause Society has shown the impact a positive mindset can have.