Did you know 18th October is World Menopause Day?
The menopause is a condition that most women experience as part of the natural ageing process. World Menopause Day is marked around the world as a way to raise awareness of the menopause and the impact it can have on women’s lives.
As with many health conditions that affect women, discussion of the menopause is often kept private. Many women feel uncomfortable sharing their menopause story, because ageing – particularly in women – is still seen as undesirable. But by keeping quiet about our menopause symptoms, we end up struggling alone.
What is the menopause?
The menopause is a natural process that occurs when a woman stops having periods and is no longer able to conceive naturally. It usually happens to women aged 45 to 55, with the average age of menopause in the UK being 51.
As women get older, their store of eggs in the ovary decreases and less oestrogen is produced. This makes the body behave differently.
Menopause can also begin after medical treatments including chemotherapy, radiotherapy and breast cancer treatments as well as removal of the ovaries.
The physical symptoms of the menopause – like hot flushes, irregular periods, night sweats and weight gain – can be easy to spot but going through the menopause can have a huge effect on women’s mental wellbeing too.
Brain fog, mood changes, forgetfulness and depression can all be linked to the menopause – it can have a huge impact on physical and mental health and leave women feeling like life is ‘over’.
Menopause in the spotlight
Over the last few years, the menopause has slowly become part of everyday conversation. This has been encouraged further with high profile celebs sharing their experiences. Michelle Obama, Emma Thompson, Kim Cattrall and Oprah Winfrey have all talked publicly about their own experiences with the menopause.
Sports presenter Gabby Logan said “I just did not understand fully what was happening or going to happen to me” about her early experience with menopause symptoms. BritPop queen Meg Matthews described herself as in a “dark and lonely place” when she was first diagnosed, and now runs a support website for women going through the menopause.
Connecting with other women going through the menopause is a great way to better understand your symptoms, voice your worries and find support.
The menopause is still so rarely discussed, so just knowing there are other people out there going through the same things you are can be a huge comfort.
Davina McCall and the menopause conversation
In May 2021, Channel 4 aired ‘Sex, Myths and the Menopause’ presented by Davina McCall. Davina was 44 years old when she first experienced hot flushes, depression and mental fog, brought on by menopause.
Her honest, open portrayal of life with the menopause spoke to women across the country and forced the conversation into public consciousness more than ever before.
In May 2022, Davina was back on Channel 4 with her follow-up documentary ‘Sex, Mind and the Menopause’. She shared that 7 in 10 women struggle with brain fog in menopause, and looked at how menopause can affect the mind as well as the body, especially for women at work. Davina also explored the latest hormone therapy and women and testosterone.
As more women in the public eye talk about the menopause, the signs and symptoms become more understood and we can start having these conversations more freely among ourselves.
The three stages of menopause
Menopause usually happens slowly, across three stages. Although it can start earlier, the first stage of menopause mostly commonly starts around age 47 and the full process can last four years.1. Pre-menopause - This is the first stage of menopause, usually starting around age 47. The first symptom is irregular periods – you’ll notice your cycles becoming erratic, but not stopping. You might also notice other symptoms like hot flushes, but you can still get pregnant during this stage.
2. Menopause - The second stage is menopause itself – this is when you have your final menstrual period, but you won’t know for sure that it’s happened until it’s been a year since your last one. Common symptoms during this period are hot flushes, vaginal dryness, sleep problems, mood changes and brain fog.
3. Post-menopause - Once you’ve gone a full year without a period, you’re considered in the final stage – post-menopause. At this point, vaginal bleeding is not normal so do tell your doctor if you experience any bleeding more than one year after your last period.
The symptoms of menopause
There are 34 symptoms of menopause however, they vary from person to person.
Discover the most common below and find out how they occur and how you can manage them.
Changes that can occur to your body
Menopause can be a really tough time for many women due to the physical changes to their bodies. From pre-menopause through to post-menopause, you can experience a whole host of uncomfortable physical symptoms.
- Increased sensations and feeling irritable
You might feel a tingly sensation like pins and needles, get electric shocks when you touch things, or feel itchy all over your body. These annoying physical symptoms can be combined with or lead to feeling irritable, like you can’t settle or get comfortable.
- Experience dizzy spells and hot flushes
Changes in hormones during the menopause can lead to dizzy spells, hot flushes and night sweats. Temperature changes are very common at night, which can make it hard to get a good night’s sleep – look for natural, breathable bedding like this linen set to make sure you’re as comfortable as possible. Light layers you can remove as you get too hot are a good idea too.
- Increased body odour
Hot flushes can make you feel sweaty, and hormone changes can lead to an increase in body odour. Look for stronger anti-perspirants to keep you feeling fresh.
- An irregular heartbeat
Those hot flushes again – they can cause heart palpitations, where your heart beats faster for a short period. These are usually harmless, but if they’re happening a lot please do check with your doctor.
- Weak nails and fragile bones
Lower oestrogen levels during menopause can lead to dehydration and leave bones and nails brittle and weak. Look into supplements you can take to support your body.
- New and/or worsened allergies
The fluctuating levels of oestrogen experienced in menopause can lead to spikes in the production of histamine, which may make you more sensitive to allergens. You might find yourself suffering with hay fever for the first time, for example.
- An overactive bladder
A lack of oestrogen can also weaken your bladder, which means you might find you need the toilet more often and can ‘hold it’ for less time.
- Hair loss
Oestrogen has a lot to answer for, including thick and healthy hair. When oestrogen and progesterone levels drop, hair grows more slowly and becomes thinner. A decrease in these hormones can also trigger an increase in male hormones, which shrink hair follicles and result in hair loss.
Discovering new aches and pains
Menopause can leave us feeling tired and achy, with painful joints and muscles. This is a normal response to changing hormone levels, but it’s important to listen to your body and treat pain where you can.
- Tension in muscles and joints
Changing oestrogen levels can affect your joints and the connective tissue that holds your bones together. But during the menopause, women are more likely to get osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. If you’re feeling constant pain in your joints, particularly in your hands, a visit to the doctor can help identify and treat the symptoms.
- Breast tenderness
Breast tenderness is very common during the early stages of menopause as hormone levels start to change and your periods become erratic. Many women find that breast pain settles down once their periods stop fully, but in the meantime a comfortable and supportive bra is key. Look for non-wired, soft bras or bralettes that offer support without digging in or being restrictive.
- Frequent headaches / migraines
Hormone headaches are linked to menstrual cycles. They often get worse as women approach menopause as periods come more often and the normal hormone cycle is disrupted.
To help, try eating small meals to keep your blood sugar levels stable, avoid stress as much as you can and get plenty of sleep.
- Discomfort during sex
During menopause, many women experience vaginal dryness which can make sex very uncomfortable. There are options to help though – speak to your doctor about an oestrogen treatment that’s administered as a pessary, cream or vaginal ring. This increases moisture in the lining of your vagina and can make walking, exercise and sex more comfortable again.
Changes to your digestion
Did you know the menopause can also affect your digestion? It’s all down to hormones once again – oestrogen keeps the stress hormone cortisol under control, but when oestrogen runs low, cortisol increases which raises your blood pressure and blood sugars and slows down digestion. This can lead to bloating, indigestion, acid reflux and weight gain among other symptoms.
- Weight gain
Women can experience weight gain, especially around the abdominal area, during menopause.
- Experience bloating
Bloating is also a common symptom that can leave you feeling uncomfortable in too-tight clothes.
Changes that can happen mentally
Menopause doesn’t just have a physical affect – the mental changes that come with menopause can be hugely debilitating.
- Problems with memory and difficulties concentrating
‘Brain fog’ is a very common symptom of the menopause, with many women saying their brains feel like cotton wool. Brain fog can manifest as forgetfulness, finding it hard to retain information and having difficulty concentrating, meaning it can really effect women at work.
- Depression and anxiety
Hormonal changes during menopause can contribute to a range of mental health struggles. Depression and anxiety can show as anger and irritability, loss of self-esteem and confidence, low mood and feelings of sadness. It’s important to speak to your doctor if you’re finding any of these symptoms hard to deal with.
- Reduced sex drive
The loss of oestrogen and testosterone during menopause can lead to lower libido and a reduced sex drive, as well as less sensitivity to touching.
- Insomnia and fatigue
Hormone changes can contribute to insomnia, and broken sleep can in turn create feelings of fatigue during the day.
One thing that can help is making your bedroom a calm, peaceful environment – blackout curtains will keep light at bay, and you might find a weighted eye mask helps, too. A diffuser with essential oils that promote sleep like lavender, ylang ylang and chamomile is also a good idea.
For more information, read our blog post on how to curate a calm, restful bedroom.
Women can experience menopausal symptoms for around four years after their last period, although some woman have symptoms for longer than this.
Medical treatment for menopause
The most important thing for women experiencing menopause symptoms is to speak to a doctor about treatment options. No one should suffer in silence – there are various things you can do to support your body through the menopause and treatments can help you live a full and normal life.
Does HRT delay the menopause?
It’s important to note that HRT does not delay the menopause.HRT is however one of the most common treatments for the menopause. HRT replaces oestrogen in the body through tablets, skin patches, gels and implants. This can help relieve symptoms and make you feel more comfortable through the process.
CBT for the menopause
Another treatment that many women find beneficial during menopause is cognitive behavioural therapy. CBT is a non-medical approach that can be helpful with managing anxiety and stress, depression, hot flushes, night sweats, sleep problems and fatigue. It helps people develop practical ways of managing problems, teaching you coping skills and strategies you can apply to a wide range of issues. For many, it can be a great way to improve wellbeing in general.
If you’re struggling with the menopause, reach out to your doctor to discuss your treatment options. It’s important that we have conversations about the menopause, to improve treatments, normalise the experience and reduce the stigma around it.
Read more health advice on our blog here.