Hot flushes…night sweats….weight fluctuation…These are the more well known symptoms associated with the menopause. Did you know there are more than 30 different symptoms that affect women as they experience this phase of their lives? Some of these are well known but others are less talked about. Many women may not know that issues they experience are related to the menopause or “the change” as it has come to be commonly known.
Fall in hormone levels
Changes in the female body are caused by ovaries producing less of the female sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone. These hormones are involved in bodily processes that control appetite, sex drive, mood, bone strength and even heart health. The fall in oestrogen leads to monthly periods becoming irregular and eggs no longer being produced every month. Many women experience mood swings, headaches, decreased libido, hot sweats and disturbed sleep. Joint pain, digestive problems, gum problems, itchy skin, dizzy spells, allergies, anxiety and depression are less well known symptoms. The list goes on and many women may not know that they are experiencing symptoms related to the menopause, or how to live well throughout this phase of life.
The three phases
Menopause is a natural part of ageing that begins most frequently in the late 40s and early 50s but can start around the age of 40. The time of onset is largely down to genetics but lifestyle can also influence the timing. A healthy lifestyle with lots of regular exercise, a nutritious diet and lack of smoking can delay the onset by one to three years. There are three phases;
- perimenopause when the body begins the transition and periods become irregular,
- menopause which is indicated by 12 months without a period,
- postmenopause which is two to three years after the menopause when symptoms begin to subside.
These timings are only guidelines and for some the whole transition can take up to eight years. Bear in mind that after one year of no periods, bleeding is not normal so make sure you tell your GP if this occurs.
Many women may approach this stage of their lives with trepidation. Not knowing what to expect, how it will affect them, or what they can do about it. Mentally, it can be a huge barrier to overcome as menstruation becomes a thing of the past and reproductive years cease to exist. The menopause is different for each individual. However, good nutrition, regular exercise and a generally healthy lifestyle have been known to lessen the symptoms experienced.
A good starting point is to kick any old unhealthy habits such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol and caffeine. These lifestyle changes, along with eating lots of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, fish, dairy products and taking regular exercise can help to manage symptoms and boost health.
Mood swings, low mood and anxiety can be helped by good self care including plenty of rest, yoga, meditation or tai chi. Regular exercise such as daily walks in the fresh air can help to support positive mental health. Other treatments are also available where symptoms have an impact on quality of life. Cognitive behavioural therapy or CBT – a talking therapy that can improve low mood and feelings of anxiety. Speak to your GP who is able to refer to CBT or recommend other medication if required.
The menopause is often associated with hot flushes and night sweats. Wearing light clothing, keeping the bedroom cool and taking a cool shower can help to ease these symptoms. Again taking regular exercise and avoiding triggers such as caffeine, spicy food, smoking and excessive alcohol.
Many women try herbal or natural remedies to alleviate symptoms. Your GP will be able to advise if you are considering taking these.
Hormone Replacement Therapy – HRT
The main treatment prescribed by GPs to manage symptoms of the menopause is Hormone Replacement Therapy, or HRT. In order to protect the lining of the womb progesterone is given and replaces oestrogen that is missing. HRT helps to reduce symptoms such as hot flushes, mood swings and joint pains. It can also help to prevent thinning of the bones (osteoporosis) which is common after the menopause.
However HRT isn’t for everyone. It can’t be taken if women have experienced certain types of cancer, blood clots, liver disease or strokes. Risk factors need to be discussed with a doctor or nurse before going ahead with HRT.
Menopause is a phase that all women will experience. It can be supported positively with good self-care and a healthy lifestyle. Any symptoms that impact on quality of life should be discussed with your GP.
For more information on the menopause, its symptoms and treatment visit: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/menopause/