The menopause is a natural stage in a woman’s life. However, it does bring with it certain symptoms that can be difficult to adapt to living with. Understanding what the menopause is, why it occurs in your body and what it will be like are all natural things for all women to wonder; whether it be at a young age or as one approaches the age of menopause.
In this guide we’re going to explore some of the common symptoms associated with the menopause, along with a few of the ways that they can be best managed.
What is the Menopause?
Before looking at menopause symptoms, it’s important to understand the basics about this significant change in a woman’s hormonal cycle. The menopause is the term used to describe when your periods end due to changes in your hormone levels as you age. It usually marks the end of your reproductive cycle, so you will no longer be able to get pregnant naturally.
Women only have a finite number of eggs, which are matured and released by the ovaries as part of the monthly menstrual cycle. Once oestrogen levels decrease the change in hormone levels causes the ovaries to stop releasing eggs, leading to the end of menstruation.
When does the Menopause occur?
The menopause is different for every woman but it usually occurs between the ages of 45 and 55 years old, with the average age in the UK being 51 years old. In some cases, the onset of the menopause can happen earlier. According to the NHS, around 1 in 100 women experience what is known as premature menopause, happening before the age of 40. Menopause happens in three distinct stages:
This stage is also known as the menopause transition, as it’s when a woman gradually starts to experience menopausal symptoms. During perimenopause, the ovaries gradually start to produce less oestrogen. This happen around the age of 40 (sometimes a little earlier) and can last for anything from a few months to several years, until the ovaries eventually stop releasing eggs altogether due to this change. The symptoms during perimenopause range from irregular periods, changes in mood and trouble sleeping through to breast tenderness, fatigue and hot flushes.
The term ‘menopause’ isn’t technically a stage as it refers to the point after which a woman has had her last period. A woman can be said to have ‘gone through the menopause’ after she hasn’t had a period for 12 months.
The post menopause occurs at the point when a woman has gone through the menopause and lasts until the end of her life. This period signifies that the ovaries have permanently ceased releasing eggs and the production of oestrogen has dramatically dropped or stopped altogether. During the early years of postmenopause, it is important for women to keep a close eye on their health as there can be health risks associated with the drop in oestrogen caused by the menopause, such as osteoporosis and heart disease, as well as less serious issues like weight gain. Women can also suffer from severe mood swings and anxiety, due to fluctuating levels of estrogen.
The Symptoms of Menopause
Unfortunately, menopause is not as simple as suddenly no longer having to deal with your monthly cycle anymore. Most women can expect to experience, at the very least, mild symptoms caused by the drop in oestrogen in the body, as well as changes to other hormones in the body. Some women will experience quite severe symptoms that can significantly affect their lives. The good news though, is that, by being in tune with your body, you will be able to notice these changes and address them.
Here are some of the most commonly experienced menopausal symptoms:
This is the symptom most commonly associated with the menopause and that is probably because hot flushes are so common in women of menopausal age. It can be difficult to describe what a hot flush feels like, but most women report a very sudden sensation of heat that spreads through the body. In some cases, the face becomes flushed while other women may experience sweating.
Having a hot flush can be a very uncomfortable sensation, especially as it happens without warning. Some triggers of hot flushes include foods containing caffeine, MSG or alcohol, as well as spicy foods. Stress and anxiety can also play their part. As such, it is possible to cut some of these triggers out of your life (or at the least reduce their influence). Some women also find that certain herbal remedies and vitamins can make a difference to how often hot flushes happen. Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can also help alleviate these symptoms, often stopping them altogether. There can be side effects to long term HRT use though, so it’s important to discuss these with your GP before choosing this treatment.
Night sweats and insomnia
Night sweats are caused by the hot flushes mentioned above, causing you to overheat when in bed, causing excess sweating and discomfort. It can be quite difficult to live with and even stop you sleeping. Again, certain herbal remedies, HRT and even a different bedtime routine/bedroom setup can help to ease this symptom. Treatment for hot flushes can help with associated insomnia and fatigue during the day, but there could be other causes that will need addressing too – such as stress or anxiety stopping you from getting to sleep.
Vaginal dryness and discomfort during sex
This symptom is very common, but many women feel uncomfortable to talk about it or seek a solution. In menopausal women, it is caused by the decrease in the amount of oestrogen being produced by the body. The good news is that vaginal irritation, dryness and discomfort can be alleviated in a completely healthy way with the help of vaginal moisturisers, vaginal oestrogen and lubricants (these can be bought discretely from any pharmacy or drugstore). Natural progesterone cream and wild yam extract can also be helpful with vaginal dryness for some women.
Low mood or anxiety
The menopause can affect your moods, with declining oestrogen levels potentially causing anxiety, low mood or a long-lasting feeling of premenstrual syndrome or PMS. Women experiencing mood changes may feel more irritable than usual or experience levels of sadness, aggression and anxiety above and beyond what they are used to. Some women report a general drop in motivation, which can make daily life harder.
If you feel like you're struggling, it’s important to go and talk to your GP to find out about potential treatments such HRT and/or cognitive behavioural therapy, which can help you relax and control moods and particularly spiralling anxiety. Behavioural therapy could also identify whether there is something else causing your low mood, with menopause merely exaggerating the problem. It’s important therefore to find a treatment that is tailored to you.
Reduced sex drive (libido)
Changes in your hormone levels can affect more than your mood. The menopause and a drop in oestrogen, as well as testosterone, can also cause a change in your normal sex drive. If you’re having problems, a visit to your GP could help. It can be embarrassing to talk about a change to your libido but it’s not uncommon and there are solutions available. These include HRT to boost hormone levels and certain lifestyle changes.
Problems with memory and concentration
The menopause can interfere with memory and concentration in the same way it can with mood. It’s all linked to low hormone levels and the emotional changes the menopause can cause. Certain herbal remedies may help with concentration, but speak to your GP for information about other treatments, including hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Key supplements for menopausal symptoms:
Mood support - 5HTP
Hot flushes - Black Cohosh
Libido - Shatavari
Oestrogen support - Isoflavones (pytooestrogens)