Dealing with the menopause

So, how is the menopause going for you?

It’s not a question many people ask, and yet the menopause is something that half the population has to deal with at some point. So what exactly is happening to our bodies – and our minds and libidos – when we hit the menopause, and how can we best deal with the symptoms?

Mr David Griffiths, a consultant gynaecologist at Swindon’s Shalbourne Private Health Care and an accredited specialist with the British Menopause Society, has a particular interest in post-reproductive health. Mr Griffiths says that because the symptoms of the menopause are so varied, it’s worth discussing them with your GP to make sure they are not being caused by a different condition.

“The menopause tends to come at a time of life when women have a lot of responsibilities, including teenage children, ageing parents and busy jobs, so they may put their symptoms down to stress or the fact that they haven’t been making time for themselves,” says Mr Griffiths.

“Once you do have a diagnosis of the menopause, the good news is that there are steps you can take to manage your menopause and reduce the effects it has on your quality of life.

“Two risks associated with the menopause are osteoporosis and heart disease. Osteoporosis occurs when bone loses strength and becomes thin and fragile, and it’s potentially very serious. It affects around one in three women, but women who follow diets high in calcium-rich foods such as milk, cheese, green leafy vegetables and oily fish can reduce this risk substantially. Increasing the body’s vitamin D levels by including some animal fats in the diet can also help, and our bodies naturally produce vitamin D in sunlight, so sensible – but not excessive – daily exposure to sunlight can also help protect your bones.

“Similarly, heart disease is serious, but by following a healthy diet, exercising regularly, drinking in moderation and reducing your stress levels, you can also reduce this risk substantially too.”

One option for women is hormone replacement therapy (HRT) which boosts hormone levels as they approach the menopause. It is not without risks - some forms of HRT can increase the risk of developing breast cancer (although to put that in context, drinking 14 units of alcohol a week poses a greater risk for breast cancer than taking HRT, and a BMI of greater than 30 doubles the risk). But the benefits it offers in terms of preventing bone loss are thought to outweigh the risks. It’s particularly useful in preventing osteoporosis in women who have had an early menopause.

Many women report that it not only reduces hot flushes and mood swings, but it improves vaginal dryness and improves their libido, as well as improving their energy levels and general feeling of wellbeing.

Your GP will be able to help you decide whether or not HRT might be right for you.

Reducing menopause risks and symptoms

Make these lifestyle changes and you’ll reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis and heart disease, and you should see a reduction in your symptoms too:

  • If you smoke, now is a good time to stop
  • Keep your alcohol consumption below 14 units a week
  • Limit your caffeine intake
  • Take regular weight-bearing exercise to keep your bones stronger – brisk walking, climbing stairs, dancing, skipping with a rope and playing tennis all help maintain bone strength
  • Make dairy, oily fish, green leafy vegetables and other calcium-rich foods part of your daily diet

Did you know?

  • The maximum number of egg cells in our ovaries is determined while we are still in our mothers’ wombs. By the time we are born, that number has already reduced, and it reduces further from puberty onwards.
  • Menopause refers to our last menstrual period. During the menstrual cycle the lining of the womb is stimulated by the hormones oestrogen and progesterone, but as women reach their forties, the levels of hormones our ovaries produce begins to fall spontaneously, and it is these low and fluctuating hormone levels that are thought to cause menopausal symptoms.
  • The average age women experience menopause is 51, but it can occur much earlier or later. Menopause that occurs before the age of 45 is called an early menopause and if it occurs before the age of 40 is called premature menopause.
  • Sometime women can experience menopauses for reasons unrelated to age – for example, if their ovaries have to be removed as part of a treatment, or if they fail following chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

How can you tell if you’re approaching the menopause?

Around 70% of women experience symptoms of some sort. If you are in your late 40s or early 50s and your periods are becoming less frequent, and you have other symptoms – such as hot flushes and night sweats – it’s likely that the menopause is the cause.

Other common symptoms include:

  • Palpitations
  • Aching joints
  • Insomnia or disturbed sleep patterns
  • Mood swings, irritability and anxiety
  • Difficulty coping with things that don’t normally faze you
  • Forgetfulness and lack of ability to concentrate
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Reduced interest in sex
  • Thinning hair and skin