Understanding the journey of menopause
Tuesday 1 October 2019
Menopause is a normal and natural event in a woman’s life. It's a journey, but the journey is different for everyone. Menopause can come as a relief for many women, as it signals the end of pregnancy concerns and periods. For others, this ‘change of life’ can be an unsettling time, depending on their symptoms. Whatever the case, menopause occurs when the menstrual cycle permanently stops, causing infertility and changes to the body.
When women experience menopause
Women typically reach menopause between 45 and 55. However, there is no set age or duration for menopause. It is not necessary to have hormonal tests to ‘prove’ you are menopausal. However, a doctor may order tests if there is concern that physical changes are a sign of illness rather than natural ageing, or if spontaneous menopause occurs at an early age. ‘Premature menopause’ refers to menopause occurring before the age of 40 and ‘early menopause’ is before the age of 45.
Women in their 40s generally start to notice fluctuations in their menstrual cycle, such as irregular periods, lighter or heavier bleeding, as hormone levels begin to change in preparation for menopause. This is referred to as ‘peri-menopause’ (the menopausal transition). After 12 consecutive months of no periods, a woman is considered ‘post-menopausal.’
Symptoms of menopause
Menopause is when a woman’s ovaries stop producing the usual amount of two female sex hormones, oestrogen and progesterone. This change in hormone levels causes the symptoms of menopause to occur. Some women can experience menopausal symptoms for 5-10 years before their final menstrual period. Unfortunately, it is impossible to predict the age at which your menopausal symptoms will start or how long they will last.
When we think of menopause, we often think of hot flushes and night sweats as common symptoms. However, symptoms vary, and some women go through menopause with no problems.
Physical symptoms you may experience:
- Hot flushes
- Night sweats (waking up hot and sweaty)
- Tiredness or difficulty sleeping
- Vaginal dryness
- Discomfort during sexual intercourse.
Sleep deprivation and hormonal changes can affect your mental wellbeing.
Psychological symptoms you may experience:
- Mood swings
- Lack of self-esteem
- Reduced sex drive (libido).
The impact of menopause on overall health
Health conditions like osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease are more prevalent in post-menopausal women.
When you start menopause your bone density declines because your body produces less oestrogen. Consequently, post-menopausal women are more at risk of developing osteoporosis which results in fragile bones and a risk of fracture. Your doctor may recommend a bone density test every couple of years, especially if osteoporosis runs in your family. Generally, eating a healthy diet and regular weight-bearing exercise is recommended to ensure your bones are strong once you start menopause.
It is also important to remember that pregnancy is still possible during menopause. It is recommended that women going through menopause, who do not wish to become pregnant, should continue using contraception. Condoms also reduce the risk of contracting STIs. It is recommended that women over 50, who do not wish to fall pregnant, should continue using contraception one year after their last period and for women under 50, two years after their last period is suggested. Talk to your doctor about what kind of contraception is suitable for you to use during menopause.
Being informed is a very good starting point for managing the menopause transition. Treatments such as Hormone Replacement Therapy are available if required. Talk to your doctor or qualified health professional if you have any concerns about persistent symptoms.
Having a healthy lifestyle is the best thing you can do to manage and reduce your symptoms.
- Eating well – choose a wide variety of foods, including plenty of fresh vegetables, fruits, cereals, whole grains and small portions of lean meat, fish or chicken. Increase fluids and eat low-fat dairy foods with high calcium content.
- Exercising regularly – aim for at least 30 minutes most days
- Not smoking
- Prioritising enough quality sleep – 8 hours sleep recommended
- Taking care of your mental health
- Reducing your stress levels
- Using light-weight pyjamas and bedding to help with night sweats.
If you’re experiencing hot flushes, night sweats, or poor sleep, try reducing your caffeine intake and keep your alcohol intake within the recommended guidelines.
Whilst the physical and emotional changes you may experience can be challenging and unpleasant, menopause does not define you. Menopause should be seen as another chapter in your journey. A time to reflect and assess your lifestyle and health. A reminder to prioritise time for yourself. And an opportunity to set new goals and strive for continuing wellness in the mature years.