Five things I’ve discovered about the menopause
I never really thought about the menopause until it happened to me, aged 50. The general lack of education, awareness and conversation surrounding menopausal symptoms, and how they affect women, meant that I wasn’t prepared at all. With so little information readily available, I have had to do a lot of fact-finding for myself. An experience that rings true with most of my friends.
In the UK, the average age to start the menopause is 51. However, it can typically start anywhere between 45 and 55. And according to the NHS, one in 100 women will experience early menopause. Whichever way you look at it, that’s a lot of women at any one time going through The Change, and I feel strongly that we shouldn’t go through it feeling isolated like our mothers’ generation. We know that shared knowledge is power, but we want more. More medical research and informed, supportive GPs, so that we don’t have to rely on passing information between ourselves like black-market spivs.
Fortunately, doctors, academic researchers, MPs, journalists, bloggers (like Henpicked) are starting to look forward, make a noise and make a difference. The more we talk about it and provide solid information and advice, the less scary and lonely it will become. Menopause isn’t a taboo, it’s a fact of life and it’s something that we will all experience. So with that in mind, here are five things that I’ve discovered about menopause.
YOU WILL FEEL HOT, TIRED AND ANGRY AND THAT’S OK
Menopause is a mental, emotional and physical change. Some of my friends have glided through it like Jane Torville in her heyday, whereas I’ve had more of a Tonia Harding-experience. Crashing around feeling hot, tired, angry and self-critical, a lot of the time. ‘It makes you feel like a psycho-killer,’ one of my friends, who has just started using HRT, said recently.
Over the past year, I’ve found HRT patches have reduced the hot flush factor and made me feel calmer. There are many different types of HRT and also different doses – and quite a few women I know are successfully using this approach. Others prefer non-hormonal methods, natural supplements such as black cohosh, and acupuncture. “It is important that women have an individualised consultation and receive the optimal type and dose of HRT for them,” advises GP and menopause expert Dr Louise Newson. “The current menopause guidelines are all clear that the benefits – including reduction of the risk of heart disease and osteoporosis – of taking HRT outweigh any risks for the majority of women.”
FORGETTING THINGS IS NORMAL
This is related to oestrogen depletion. Sometimes I forget really simple words and people’s names, or find getting out of the house in the morning takes an immense effort. Another friend had a job interview last week and even though she has loads of brilliant experience at a senior executive level, and was quite possibly overqualified for the position, she was worried that the combination of menopause and being in a pressurised situation would cause her to forget crucial facts.
Midlife is stressful, we are under a lot of social and financial pressures – balancing work, caring for children and elderly relatives. “Stress makes menopause worse; menopause symptoms are stressful,” explains professor Myra Hunter emeritus professor of clinical health psychology at King’s College London. Basically, we need to put the “pause” into menopause. Give ourselves a break. Look after our health, exercise, eat well and then introduce a half an hour period every day where we literally do nothing. “When you’re in that situation, it’s hard to unpick. Give more time to yourself: mindfulness and relaxation can help,” continues Hunter, “and from 55 onwards your general mood improves.” (Alyson Walsh aged 54 and three-quarters punches the air.)
MENOPAUSAL WOMEN DON’T ALL WEAR LILAC CARDIGANS
Though advertisements targeted at the older demographic suggest otherwise, menopausal women do not all dress in shades of lilac and greige and share a relentless enthusiasm for the waterfall cardigan. Our body shape changes during menopause – these days I have a flabby middle and no bum. Now that oestrogen has left the building our metabolic rate slows down – we burn less fat and gain weight around the middle.
To accommodate this, over the last few years I’ve switched from signature grey marl T-shirts to open-necked, oversized shirts (try Arket, COS and MHL) and silk blouses (Winser London, & Other Stories). Looser garments in natural fabrics are the perfect way to keep cool and cover the flab, but I am still wearing my beloved jeans. High-waisted Mom jeans and a not-too-slouchy boyfriend-style are the new favourites, and are particularly useful for tucking everything in. MiH is good for both – try the Mimi and Phoebe styles – and I’m loving Levi’s 501s again. I’ll wear a lightweight blazer over a silk top (Winser London’s v-neck top is a grown-up take on the T-shirt) and sporty trousers or posh joggers. And even though I have to go to the loo more frequently (lower oestrogen levels affect the elasticity of urinary tract walls), I practically live in a jumpsuit; both Hush and Baukjen do lovely, lightweight versions.
YOU MIGHT HAVE TO STOP DRINKING WINE (BUT THERE’S ALWAYS GIN)
Reducing alcohol consumption is recommended during menopause – as if feeling angry all the time and shit about yourself wasn’t bad enough. But by relaxing the blood vessels and bringing more blood to the skin’s surface, wine, in particular, can trigger hot flushes, disturb sleep patterns and cause night sweats. To avoid a hot flush fest, I tend to drink less wine or just drink wine with food and plenty of water. Late-night drinking has been replaced by an early evening gin and tonic or a couple of beers. Better still, meet friends for weekend lunch and have a drink then instead.
THERE’S NO TWO WAYS ABOUT IT, YOUR VAGINA WILL GET DRY
One of the first symptoms I noticed – and the worst of all (in my opinion) is vaginal dryness – or atrophy, to give it its proper medical name. Reduction in oestrogen levels affects the walls of the vagina, they become thinner, dryer and less elastic. This can be painful and itchy and lubrication is required during sex. Feeling hot and bothered and wondering if my sex life is over, I arrange yet another 10-minute consultation with the doctor. Cramming in menopausal symptoms like nobody’s business, I manage to mumble my way through the list on my phone, including what I simply refer to as dryness. I come out feeling delighted that I am no longer part of what Frankie (Lily Tomlin) in Netflix’s Grace & Frankie refers to as the “dry, silent majority”.
Kathy Abernethy, a menopause specialist nurse and author of Menopause: The One-Stop Guide, suggests that part of the problem is that women are embarrassed to talk about the issue, so they buy lubricants and products that don’t work and think that they can’t solve the problem. “If you go through menopause at the usual time, it’s not surprising that you need a lubricant. You just have to build this into your routine,” she says. Recommending that we ditch bubble bath and bath oils that can aggravate dryness, she continues, “Sylk and Yes VM natural vaginal moisturisers are both really good, they do the job – but you might need vaginal oestrogen, too. Vaginal dryness is not like hot flushes, it won’t get better on its own.” For more information read this.
But the good news is: no more periods. And my friend got the job, by the way.
This is an edited version of a feature I’ve written for The Pool, read the entire article HERE.