We sought the advice of a doctor to help make sense of the menopause and its more unpleasant side-effects
From hot flashes to night sweats , hormone replacement therapy to alternative treatments, identifying and dealing with the consequences of menopause can prove to be a difficult, painful and often confusing task. While groundbreaking new research has shown the menopause may be reversible, the fact remains that it will affect 100 per cent of women - and yet it's still a topic of taboo.
“Menopause is a natural stage of life that all women go through. It can be a frightening time for some women, who don’t understand why their body is changing in such a way,” comments GP and Get The Gloss Expert Dr Anita Sturnham . With its far-reaching consequences affecting our moods, minds, bodies and internal thermostats, finding ways to deal with its unpleasant side-effects can often turn out to be a fruitless journey of trial and error.
So, what really works?
We asked Dr Sturnham for the menopause symptoms to be on the lookout for and for her recommendations of the treatments and products that help provide some relief from its repercussions. With her advice in tow for tackling this tough life stage, you’ll hopefully be able to give your hormones the helping hand they need to get you back to feeling your best and back on track sooner than you think.
1. When does menopause start?
The menopause is a time when a woman’s periods stop and her ovaries no longer release eggs. The average age that this happens is 52.
2. How long does menopause last?
What most people don’t realise is that this is not something that happens overnight. There is a stage before the menopause called the perimenopause, which can start years before periods actually stop.
The falling Oestrogen and Progesterone hormones (female sex hormones) in the body can make a woman feel different.
The menopause is an inevitable event for every woman. The problem with the menopause is that it is different for every woman and there is often no way to predict its onset, duration or severity of menopausal symptoms. Every woman will find that their menopause will begin and end on its own schedule. Once the symptoms start, it is difficult to predict how long it will last. Every woman will have her own story about her journey through the menopause.
There are so many factors influencing the timing and experience of menopause. These include things like one’s genetics, diet, lifestyle, stress levels and general health.
The perimenopause or the 'transition' stage before the menopause usually begins several years before menopause. During this time the ovaries gradually begin to make less of the hormone Oestrogen. It usually starts in a woman's 40s, but can start in her 30s or even earlier.
Perimenopause lasts up until menopause, the point when the ovaries stop releasing eggs. In the last 1 to 2 years of perimenopause, this drop in Oestrogen speeds up. At this stage, many women have menopause symptoms.
The average length of perimenopause is 4 years, but for some women this stage may last only a few months or continue for 10 years. Perimenopause ends when a woman has gone 12 months without having her period.
Some women may pass through it without noticing any change at all, other than the change and cessation of their periods. Some may get hot flushes and feel out of sorts for 6-12 months and some feel that their menopausal symptoms are lasting for years.
3. What are the signs of menopause?
- Hot flushes
- Night sweats
- Mood changes
- Poor concentration
- Vaginal dryness
The declining Oestrogen can also lead to thinning of the bones, hair thinning, incontinence, memory loss and much more.
4. Will menopause make me moody?
Many women find that their mood changes and a recent report suggested that concentration levels and memory can drop up to 40% when they go through the menopause.
5. What can help relieve hot flushes?
Hot flushes are one of the most common symptoms a woman experiences during the menopause. It is a sudden feeling of heat in the upper body, which may spread between the face, neck, and/or chest. A woman may perspire to cool down her body, in some cases excessively. Some women also experience a rapid heart rate or chills. Hot flushes accompanied with sweating can also occur at night.
As well as following the above guidelines, women should ensure that they sleep in a cool room, as well as reduce consumption of spicy foods and refraining from smoking. Women are best doing regular aerobic or low intensity workouts, as high intensity can make flushes worse.
They can also use a number of cooling products:
Chillow (cooling pillow), £27.50.
PCM pillow cover (cooling pillow cover).
Climsom cooling mattress topper (circulates cold water).
Diet: I cannot stress the benefits of soya enough! Soya has an effect in the body similar to Oestrogen so can help with all symptoms but mainly hot flushes. Examples include soya milk, edamame beans and tofu. A study showed that 90mg of isoflavones a day, found in soy, reduced hot flushes.
6. What is hormone replacement therapy?
Some women go through the menopause with barely any symptoms. Some get it severely and need treatment to help them.
To combat severe symptoms, doctors may prescribe HRT, which replaces the Oestrogen and hormones that we are lacking in the menopause. This comes in the form of tablets, patches, creams and implants.
It is not suitable for everyone. For example, a history of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, heart disease, strokes and liver disease are reasons we wouldn’t use it.
Many women are scared of HRT after stories in the press about HRT being linked to health problems like breast cancer. The good news is that more recent evidence suggests that in most cases the benefits outweigh the risks and even if you aren’t suitable, there are other medications that may be helpful.
7. What are the alternatives to HRT treatment?
Non-HRT alternatives can include antidepressants, tibolone (a man-made hormone), clonidine (tablets used to prevent migraines and to treat menopausal flushing), and gabapentin.
8. What other menopause treatments work?
Complementary therapies include the ladycare magnet (it is not known exactly how this works but medical studies show women feel relief of symptoms), black cohosh, ginseng, red clover, evening primrose oil and kava which can all ease menopausal symptoms. Furthermore, regular exercise and avoiding caffeine, smoking and alcohol can all help.
For any woman who cannot or does not choose to take HRT, I recommend that women could try acupuncture and some holistic therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy. There is also new research looking into testosterone patches which can help with concentration and low moods.
To combat lack of bone density, women can do weight bearing exercises and take calcium and vitamin D.
9. Can modifying my diet help with menopause relief?
During the menopause, our metabolic rate drops, as does our cardiovascular rate, so women must be careful to watch their blood pressure. Increasing levels of magnesium and potassium is important, as is reducing sodium, (potassium lowers blood pressure whilst sodium heightens blood pressure). Foods such as oranges, bananas, new potatoes, sweet potatoes, white beans, dates, tomatoes and raisins all help here.
Studies have found that the DASH low salt diet improved women’s moods in the menopause, whilst oily fish has been shown to reduce depressive symptoms in some. Generally healthy diets are linked to better cognition and concentration.
It is also important to eat lots of B vitamins to keep energy up and stay positive mentality. Wholegrains, marmite and fortified cereals all contain vitamin B.
We also loose bone density as we age and especially in the menopause, so we should up our levels of calcium. Cheese, yoghurts, milk, pak choi and dark leafy greens all contain a lot of calcium.
The Mediterranean diet is recommended by dieticians as a healthy diet and it is thought that this can improve women’s moods.
10. Am I normal?
Most women, including myself, are good at talking about most things but the menopause seems to be one thing that women aren’t so good at talking about!
Women often feel out of sorts for months or even years before seeking help.
The message today is talk to your partner and friends about the menopause and if you are worried about your symptoms, see your doctor.