Half of the world’s population will experience the menopause and in the UK alone, it is estimated that 13 million women are peri- or post-menopausal. How is it then, that it still remains such a taboo subject?
Lack of understanding is largely to blame. We need educate, create more awareness and get more comfortable talking about it. Many women feel uncomfortable discussing their experiences, yet we know that for the majority of women, it isn’t plain sailing and symptoms can have a significant impact on their quality of life.
What is the Menopause?
The menopause is defined as a biological stage in a woman’s life, marked by the cessation of menstruation because of a reduction in the function of the ovaries. It is a natural process, not a medical illness. In nature, as far as we know, we are only one of three creatures known to experience it (the others are killer whales and short-finned pilot whales).
Why does it happen?
A female is born with over a million eggs in her ovaries. Every month, one is released. This process is triggered by hormones, including oestrogen. As a woman ages, the oestrogen produced in her ovaries gradually declines. This doesn’t happen overnight. It can take several years for oestrogen levels to fall and it is believed that most menopausal symptoms are in fact, primarily a result of oestrogen deficiency.
Symptoms can commence several years before actually reaching the menopause, this is known as the peri-menopausal stage. During this stage it is likely that you will notice changes to your menstrual cycle. Most commonly, you will have less frequent periods, although some women continue to menstruate monthly, until their last period.
How long does it last?
On average, symptoms last for 4 years. Unfortunately, some women continue to report on problematic symptoms 15 years on.
The menopause usually occurs between the ages of 45 and 55, with the average age in the UK being 51. Some women will , however, be older when they experience this and some younger. It very much depends on their physiology and medical situation.
Interestingly, the number of women experiencing an early menopause (under the age of 40) is on the rise, with approximately 1 in 100 women being affected. An early menopause can be brought on by various factors, including surgery to remove the ovaries or womb (hysterectomy) and certain forms of treatment (chemotherapy and radiotherapy). For some women though, it is just a naturally occurring process.
How is the Menopause confirmed?
The best way is to talk to your GP/ Women’s Health specialist about the symptoms you are experiencing. A change to your menstrual cycle is often one of the initial signs that the menopause is approaching. Periods may become heavier, lighter or completely irregular.
There is a blood test that can be taken which measures the levels of FSH (follicle-stimulating hormone). Whilst not very accurate, this test can be used to determine if a woman is peri-menopausal. It cannot, however, confirm that the menopause has been reached and isn’t typically used on women over the age of 45.
It is worth tracking your periods, there are many apps which you can download to do this. A good old diary, also does the trick.
The menopause is confirmed when you have been period-free for at least 12 months.
How does it feel?
The impact that the menopause can have on a woman’s body can be huge. Symptoms can vary greatly, as can their severity and duration. They most certainly warrant attention and treatment.
Whilst many of the symptoms that women experience are physical, there are a variety of psychological/ emotional symptoms, too. These include hot flushes, nights sweats, sleep problems, joint pain, anxiety, low mood, brain fog and lack of libido. Additionally, post-menopause brings an increased risk of developing osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease. This is due to reduced bone density and women becoming more vulnerable to heart disease and strokes.
Sadly, a UK survey indicated that 10% of menopausal women seriously consider giving up work as a result of insufficient support and their symptoms. This statistic alone shows the necessity of increasing menopausal education and support in the workplace.
What can be done to manage symptoms?
It isn’t all doom and gloom. We can take control of certain lifestyle factors to help alleviate some menopausal symptoms.
- Eat a balanced diet, rich in plant foods, high in calcium and heart-healthy foods.
- Stay active and exercise regularly.
- Avoid potential triggers such as smoking, alcohol and caffeine. As well as negatively impacting sleep, these can all trigger hot flushes or make them more severe.
- Engage in stress-reducing activities (mindfulness, yoga, meditation).
Many women say that their best advice has come from speaking to other women going through the menopause, or those who have been through it. Communication is incredibly important, sharing your symptoms and how you are feeling can be very advantageous. There are many support networks available, as well as online forums – don’t suffer in silence.
Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) is seen by many as an effective treatment option. HRT replaces the hormones that are missing and can be extremely effective at relieving symptoms. There is some debate about the long-term safety of HRT which is why it is important for you to do your own research to weigh up the pros and cons. Your GP can give you further information about the risks and benefits of HRT.
Remember, the menopause isn’t the end of anything other than reproductive years. It is not a mark of old age and with many women living well into their 90s, it is certainly not the end. Of course, it can be challenging but you can start by challenging your outlook and mindset. Stay positive. Make self-confidence, self-care and self-respect your top priorities.
Let’s talk openly about the menopause. Let’s educate ourselves and others. It’s time to raise awareness and break this long held taboo. Let’s change the change!