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It used to be that no one really mentioned it very much, but now everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Lorraine Kelly has opened up about the menopause. It may no longer be such a taboo subject, but there are still myths and misinformation about it, so here’s a no-nonsense guide to it.
Menopause is officially diagnosed as the point when a woman has gone a full year without a period. Before then, many women experience symptoms, and this is known as the perimenopause. It’s a natural part of ageing, and the menopause age is generally expected to be between 45 and 55.
It’s considered premature, or early menopause, if it happens before the age of 45. The causes of early menopause can be natural, when the ovaries stop making certain hormones (especially oestrogen), or surgical, when the ovaries are removed. Cancer can also be one of the causes of early menopause insofar as the two main treatments for it – chemotherapy and radiotherapy – can cause premature ovarian failure.
Learn more about the signs to look for, and how to deal with them, here…
1. Changing periods
Often the first sign that a woman is entering the perimenopause is that her periods start to change. These changes could be in either or both frequency and flow – they could become heavier or lighter, and occur more or less often. This is completely normal, but see your doctor if bleeding lasts for longer than a week, happens more than every three weeks or is so heavy that it soaks through a tampon or pad an hour for several hours.
2. Hot flushes and night sweats
These are probably the best-known signs of the menopause, when a sudden feeling of intense heat spreads throughout the body, seemingly from nowhere. Night sweats occur when they happen during sleep. Some women can experience them several times a day, while others only have them occasionally and aren’t really bothered by them.
3. Sleep problems
Insomnia can be a sign of the menopause, with some women finding it difficult to either get to sleep or stay asleep throughout the night. For others, they find that their sleep is interrupted by night sweats.
4. Lower libido
It’s not an inevitable sign of the menopause, but some women find that their sex drive reduces significantly during the menopause. This could be because of the lower levels of the sex hormones oestrogen and testosterone in the body during the perimenopause and menopause, but for some it could just be due to feeling rough thanks to other menopause symptoms, such as anxiety or vaginal dryness.
5. Hormone headaches
Changing levels of hormones in the body can lead some people to experience ‘hormone headaches’. These can happen just before and during the first couple of days of a period, during pregnancy and can also be one of the signs of menopause.
6. Mood changes
The menopause can impact mental health as much as physical health. It’s not uncommon for one of the signs of menopause to be mood swings – you could feel anxious, depressed, irritable or tearful for no reason, thanks to the hormone fluctuations in the body.
7. Vaginal dryness
Hormones control levels of vaginal discharge, so when hormone levels change during the menopause it can lead to vaginal dryness. This can lead to itchiness, and sex becoming uncomfortable or painful, and could contribute to lowering the libido.
8. Urinary Tract Infections
Some women find that they begin to experience infections of the bladder, kidneys or urethra once they are in perimenopause, and they can be recurrent. Again, it’s down to the lack of oestrogen, which is vital to preserve the strength and flexibility of pelvic and bladder tissue.
9. Muscle and joint changes
Experiencing stiff joints and muscular aches and pains could just be a part of getting older, but it could also be a sign of the menopause. In turn, women who have gone through the menopause can be at a greater risk of developing conditions such as osteoporosis.
Being suddenly more aware of what your heart is doing could be a sign of the menopause. You might notice it pounding, fluttering or beating irregularly for a few seconds or minutes. Physically, this is again caused by hormone changes, but it could also have emotional or psychological triggers such as stress or anxiety. Given that the body is going through so many changes, it’s unsurprising that the menopause can be a stressful or anxious time for some!
6 Lifestyle tips to help with menopause
Even before menopause, you’ve probably experienced the mood-boosting effects of exercise, and noticed how it can tire you out and help you sleep better. It might seem counterintuitive, but studies show that getting hot and sweaty with a workout can actually help ease hot flushes too. Getting regular exercise can also help keep bones in good health too. Nothing too strenuous though, as that could set off palpitations!
No matter what your age or life stage, reducing stress levels can help improve your physical and mental health. Worries can keep you up at night, so learning to manage them can help with sleep and other signs of menopause like anxiety, low libido, hormone headaches and mood swings.
3. Stop smoking
There are plenty of good reasons to quit nicotine as it is, and helping with signs of menopause is yet another to add to the list. Smoking impacts the balance of hormones, which is the last thing you need during menopause when hormones are already in flux. Stopping smoking can help improve bone health, increase libido and ease hot flushes.
4. Avoid caffeine, alcohol and spicy food
Caffeine and alcohol can disrupt sleep, so it’s best to steer clear if you have menopause-related sleep problems. Both caffeine and alcohol can trigger and exacerbate hormonal symptoms, like hot flushes and night sweats. Spicy food can do this too, so is best avoided.
5. Eat calcium and Vitamin D
As well as cutting out certain things from your diet, watching what you eat and drink can help make it easier to deal with other signs of menopause too. It’s important to maintain bone strength during and after menopause, and including Vitamin D and calcium can help with this. Good sources of the former are oily fish and eggs, while the latter can be found in dairy products, nuts and green leafy vegetables.
6. Wear natural fabrics
Choose nightwear made of natural fabrics such as cotton and linen. Not only does it feel nicer against the skin, it has moisture wicking properties that will keep you more comfortable during night sweats. Wearing pure cotton underwear, rather than synthetic, can help prevent UTIs.