Have you heard that 50 is the new 30? Many women are now more confident in their 50s than their 30s; a new confidence comes with knowing who you are, what you want, and what looks and feels good on you. And with fiftieth birthday bashes taking over 21st birthday celebrations, there’s plenty to celebrate as you get a little older. But with 51 being the average age a woman in the UK starts the menopause, the symptoms can leave you feeling less like yourself, and not in the mood to party.
So what can you expect with menopause? And how do you recognise the signs and symptoms?
We take a look at some of the common symptoms of menopause, with tips to get you feeling back on track.
What is the menopause and when does it start?
The menopause, often called ‘the change’, is a completely normal condition that all women experience as they age. As part of going through the menopause, a woman will stop having periods and loses the ability to get pregnant naturally. The menopause is caused by changes in the balance of our sex hormones, and starts as your body stops producing as much of the hormone oestrogen as it did during your fertile years.
Less commonly, menopause is sometimes caused by medical procedures such as oophorectomy – removal of the ovaries – chemotherapy, radiotherapy or some breast cancer treatments. Having Down’s syndrome or Addison’s disease can also trigger menopause earlier in life.
With the menopause come many changes that may seem daunting or scary, but they are changes that women all over the world are experiencing too. You don’t necessarily just need to put up with the symptoms of menopause, either – there are plenty of ways to manage them.
How will I know when I’ve started the menopause?
Perimenopause is the transition phase as your body prepares for menopause, and can start around 8 to 10 years before you experience menopause. For many women, perimenopause happens in their 30s or 40s, and you might experience menopausal symptoms such as changes in period cycle, mood swings and hot flashes. In the perimenopause stage, your body starts providing physical clues that the menopause is on its way, although it can still be a few years before your last period. Menopause is defined as your last menstrual period, and confirmed when you haven’t had a period for twelve months in a row.
What are the symptoms of the menopause?
No two women’s bodies are exactly the same, and your experience of menopause might be very different to that of your friends or family. But there are some common symptoms of the menopause to look out for:
When you’re approaching the menopause, the length of time between your periods can be shorter or longer than usual. The amount of blood flow will also vary, and there may be months when you don’t have your period at all.
We can counter the decline of our body’s oestrogen levels by supplying our body with phyto or plant oestrogens found in tofu, soya milk or soya flour, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds. It is recommended to take at least 4 to 5 portions of seeds and unsalted nuts every week.
Hot flashes (also called hot flushes) are the most common sign of menopause or perimenopause, and affect up to 80% of women – so you’re not alone! A hot flash is a feeling of intense warmth, that seems to creep up then spreads throughout your body. Hot flashes can cause you to sweat and make your face look flushed, and they can cause night sweats too, which can leave your clothes and bedding soaked in perspiration even if the room temperature is cool. They can happen suddenly within the day, but the following can also trigger hot flashes or make them worse:
- Eating spicy food
- Drinking caffeinated and alcoholic drinks
- High temperatures
- Feeling stressed or anxious
- Receiving treatment for certain cancer types
- Taking certain medicines
- Health conditions such as an overactive thyroid, tuberculosis and diabetes
Depending on your sensitivity to hormones, your doctor might recommend hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to help with hot flashes. You can also try to manage them yourself – here’s how:
- Reduce your intake of tea, coffee and alcohol
- Sip cold or iced drinks
- Stop smoking
- Keep your room cool and well-ventilated
- Use a cold gel pack or spray your face with cool water if you feel that you’re about to have a hot flush
- Wear light cotton clothing and layers that you can easily take off
- Take lukewarm showers or baths instead of hot ones
- Speak to your doctor if you think that your medicine is causing hot flashes
Our bones can weaken during the period leading to menopause as we produce less oestrogen, which stimulates the activity of osteoblasts, the cells that produce bone. This can make our bones fragile, making us more prone to osteoporosis, the deterioration of bone density and quality. To keep your bones healthy, eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and other natural sources of calcium such as milk, yogurt and cheese. Vitamin D from sunlight exposure — about 10 minutes twice a day — and food such as oily fish, eggs and certain mushrooms will also help your body absorb calcium.
Less oestrogen may cause an increase in ‘bad’ low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol and a decline in ‘good’ high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol in our body. Higher LDL raises the risk of heart disease. Some diet changes can do a lot for your heart’s health:
- Cut down on fatty meats. Use low saturate oils and spreads and go for lower fat dairy. Grill your food instead of frying it.
- Switch to food with higher fibre content like oats, wholegrain bread and brown rice. Also include beans, lentils and chickpeas once or twice a week.
- Include at least two portions of fish every week. Choose fish that is rich in omega-3 fats like canned sardines, salmon, mackerel, herrings and trout.
- Cut down on sweets, soft drinks, cakes and other products made of refined sugar.
- Aim for the recommended 5 a day of fruits and vegetables, which contain heart-friendly antioxidants.
- Limit your intake of processed products such as ready-meals, soups and cooking sauces that are high in salt. Swap in herbs and spices for flavour.
We can be more irritable or emotionally unstable as a result of the various changes that our body goes through as part of menopause, including disrupted sleep resulting from hot flushes. Complex carbohydrates like bran, oatmeal and brown rice can bring up your serotonin levels, helping to control your appetite and make you feel brighter. Eating breakfast in addition to small food portions several times a day can also help you feel less irritable. Include exercise in your daily routine to release endorphins, your ‘happy hormones’ – anything from a group exercise class to a light jog around the park can re-frame your outlook for the day and leave you feeling energised.
Our vaginal tissues can lose lubrication as the amount of oestrogen we produce declines. The condition sometimes causes urinary incontinence and discomfort during sex, and it can also make us more vulnerable to vaginal and urinary tract infections. Aside from the menopause, there are other causes of vaginal dryness too, such as breast feeding or taking the contraceptive pill. Vaginal dryness can be embarrassing to talk about, even with your friends or partner, but there’s no need to suffer in silence, and many other women will be going through exactly the same thing! You can manage vaginal dryness by avoiding douches or perfumed soaps, creams and washes in and around your vagina. You can also use vaginal moisturisers, and try water-based lubricants before sex to relieve any discomfort.
Along with the drop in oestrogen levels, symptoms of the menopause such as difficulty sleeping, weight gain and vaginal dryness can affect our sex drive. Everyone’s sex drive is different – there’s no such thing as a “normal” libido, but if you are experiencing a reduced interest in or enjoyment of sex, start by talking to your partner so they know what you’re going through.
Along with Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) which helps with several of the symptoms of the menopause and is often prescribed for menopausal women, treating vaginal dryness, sticking to a healthy diet and doing physical activity can help keep you feeling more like yourself and more in the mood…
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