The menopause is something us women have to bear; it’s a sort of female rite of passage. Some of us find the “change of life” problematic and havoc-making as our hormones go into free-fall, whilst others just breeze through it without a care. So, what can we expect from the menopause and how can we cope when it arrives?
What is the menopause?
The average age for menopause is around 50, although it can happen at any time between the ages of 45 and 55. In some cases involving chromosomal and genetic disorders or where predisposing medical conditions have necessitated hysterectomy or other surgery, menopause can happen even earlier.
The first phase of the menopause is called perimenopause. During this phase, your ovaries stop producing eggs and your body makes less of the menstruation regulating hormone, oestrogen. Production of progesterone, which prepares the body for pregnancy, also ceases. As a consequence of these hormonal changes, menstruation becomes irregular and eventually stops completely. For most of us this process will take place gradually over four to six years, although in some cases it can happen abruptly. You might find that your periods become irregular, painful, lighter or heavier and you may have night sweats, headaches and hot flushes.
After a period-free 12 months or more, you know you’ve reached menopause. Symptoms usually peak about a year or so following this and a small percentage of women experience them for ten years or more.
Because of the falling hormone levels, your body will begin to change. The walls of the vagina become less elastic and thinner and its lubricating secretions become more watery often causing dryness and irritation which can make sex uncomfortable. One of the most unpleasant menopausal symptoms are hot flushes. These occur in the first year of menopause and present as a sudden feeling of heat, sweating and raised heart rate. You might even have palpitations and headaches and awake to find your bed sheets soaking wet.
Mood swings, anxiety and depression are also commonly experienced and other physical changes include; joint aches, itchy skin, thinning hair, reduced breast size and weight gain as your metabolism slows down. Hormonal changes can also increase the risk of osteoporosis, heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke.
Now this all sounds pretty grim doesn’t it, but many women successfully manage their menopause through modest diet and lifestyle changes, rather than resorting to medical treatment.
A balanced diet is very important together with plenty of water and you should avoid spicy food, excess alcohol, caffeine and smoking. Acupuncture, yoga, tai chi, meditation and pelvic floor exercises all help to alleviate some of the physical symptoms you might experience.
The most common form of treatment for women whose menopause symptoms are very severe is hormone replacement therapy (HRT). HRT works by giving small doses of hormones which mimic those which occur naturally in your body and help to restore the balance relieving night sweats and hot flushes, vaginal and urinary problems. Research shows that HRT also helps to prevent osteoporosis and colon cancer and can help to reduce body fat in those of us who are active.
Unfortunately, a US study carried out in 2002 indicated that HRT may increase the risk of certain types of cancers, heart attacks, strokes and blood clots. These findings have caused many women to turn their backs on HRT and look for other forms of relief instead, despite the fact that many medical experts have dismissed the study findings as inaccurate scaremongering.
There are many other forms of medication and drug therapy available to treat the individual symptoms of menopause and your doctor will be able to advise you on what’s available to address your particular problems.
If you would prefer to avoid drug therapy altogether, there are also plenty of natural remedies which have been shown to be effective too. Phytoestrogens (found in legumes or available as supplements) are effective in relieving hot flushes whilst dried sage soaked in lemon juice taken just before bed can alleviate night sweats.
Vaginal dryness can be addressed by using a custom-made cream, water-based lubricant, evening primrose oil or moisturiser; however, always double check with your pharmacist that the product you have selected is suitable for use on intimate areas or you and your partner may experience entirely the wrong kind of burning desire!
Yams and vitex agnus-castus (chaste tree berry) are good for restoring hormonal balance; calcium and vitamin D supplements can be taken for general health and St John’s Wort together with omega 3 fats are useful for anxiety and depression. A consultation with a herbalist or Chinese medicine practitioner may also be helpful.
One of the best ways to get through the menopause is to hook up with your girlfriends and share the experience. Ladies; it might not all be plain sailing and fun, but we can get through this latest life adventure together and continue to thrive.