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The Menopause - Symptoms and How to Manage It

What is the menopause?

Menopause is the natural change in a woman’s body where she stops producing eggs and therefore stops having periods. This is usually a slow, gradual process that occurs around the age of 50, but some women may experience it before or after this age.

Causes of the menopause

The reason the body goes through this change is due to a fall in oestrogen levels. Oestrogen is the female sex hormone naturally produced by the body which regulates a woman’s menstrual cycle. As oestrogen levels dip the ovaries will no longer produce eggs and as a result periods will no longer occur. However, since the reduction of oestrogen levels is a slow process most women find that their periods become less regular and more erratic before they stop altogether. The menopause had other impacts on the body too as oestrogen is used in many metabolic processes. As the body changes and oestrogen levels begin to dip, the body is susceptible to a number of side effects. The run-up to the menopause in which a woman experiences these side effects but still has periods is known as the perimenopause, and can last anywhere between a few months and a few years.

Symptoms of menopause

The most common symptoms are:

Menopause - Symptoms and How to Cope

  • Hot flushes – the sudden feeling of being very warm and uncomfortable, often accompanied by sweating and reddening of the skin. Hot flushes also occur at night too, causing night sweats.
  • Mood changes – feeling unusually anxious, stressed, depressed and lethargic is common. Many women may experience mood swings too. This occurs as a result of changing serotonin levels, the hormone responsible for feeling happy.
  • Vaginal dryness (atrophy) – the lack of natural vaginal moisture which can make you feel dry, sore and itchy and make it difficult or painful to have sex. This symptom can continue for years after the menopause.
  • Lack of libido – since oestrogen is the female sex hormone, when levels dip it can cause women to feel less interested in sex.
  • Joint pain – aches, stiffness and swelling around the joints is very common and often referred to as ‘menopause arthritis’.
  • Itchy skin – oestrogen helps regulate collagen and moisture levels in your skin, so without it the skin can become dry and irritated for no reason, causing severe itchiness.
  • Irregular periods – you may become less regular with your periods, have unusually heavy or painful periods or spot in between periods.

Other symptoms include:

  • Headaches
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Dizziness
  • Breast pain
  • Digestive problems
  • Bloating
  • Brittle nails
  • Hair loss
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Memory lapses
  • Panic attacks
  • Weight gain
  • Persistent urinary tract infections (UTIs)

What options are there for dealing with the menopause?

HRT for managing menopause

Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) was regularly prescribed to women to control the symptoms of menopause up until around 2004, when a number of studies on the treatment found a number of severe side effects and risks. HRT replaces the oestrogen that the body no longer produces in order to top up the natural hormone levels. Like the contraceptive pill, there are many different forms of HRT available and it may take a while to find the one which works best with your body. HRT can be taken in number of forms – tablet, patch, gel, cream, implant or vaginally via gel or pessary. Common side effects of HRT include nausea, cramps, headaches and dry eyes, and the severity of these problems can differ dramatically from woman to woman. Some people are simply more sensitive to hormones and will not be able to tolerate hormone-based treatments. If you have had problems with hormone-based contraceptives in the past (the pill, implant and coil) it could be likely that your body will react badly to HRT. On top of these side effects, HRT has also been associated with more severe and even life-threatening risks including deep vein thrombosis (DVT), breast, uterus and ovarian cancers, stroke and heart disease. For these reasons many women prefer to steer clear of HRT, particularly if family history suggests they may be more at risk of these conditions anyway.

Hormone-free options for dealing with the menopause

Increasing numbers of women are looking for more gentle and natural ways to control the menopause in order to avoid the risks and side effects of HRT. These include:

  • Changing food and drink habits – drink plenty of water, try to avoid caffeine, consume more calcium and plenty of food rich in phytoestrogens such as broccoli and soya.
  • Herbal supplements – Sage is great for reducing hot flushes, Buckthorn Oil can reduce intimate dryness and dry eyes, St John’s wort can help combat low mood, Quinone Q10 will improve overall cell and organ function, Vitamin D will prevent brittle nails and improve your mood, Damiana can increase libido and Arnica can reduce muscle and joint pain.
  • Exercise – this will boost serotonin levels to improve your mood and make you feel more energetic, as well help to improve your libido and keep off excess weight.
  • Vaginal lubricants –  work to increase intimate moisture levels and stop the uncomfortable itching and discomfort. You may also want to use a lubricant during intimacy with your partner.

The benefits of the menopause

Although many people look on the menopause as a negative change and the nasty symptoms unpleasant to cope with, there are things to look forward to after the menopause! Once your body stops producing eggs you will be completely free from periods which is particularly great for women who are prone to particularly severe cramps or heavy bleeding. There won’t be any need to arrange plans or activities around your period, giving you a little more freedom without worrying about mother nature’s visit. You will also be free from monthly PMS, so no more irritability or mood swings. You can also enjoy contraceptive-free sex as you will no longer be able to become pregnant. There’s no need to worry about taking the pill or using a diaphragm or condoms, which could make your sex life a little more spontaneous and exciting. Do bear in mind though that it is recommended to continue using contraception for around 2 years after your last period as in rare cases it is possible to conceive even after the menopause. Some women find that after the menopause they become closer to their partner and find the opportunity to put themselves first. This may come as a result of children being older and more independent, or perhaps they simply have a more relaxed outlook on the world without the anxiety and stress that the menopause can cause. Don’t look on the menopause as a negative thing; it isn’t just a sign of becoming older, it marks a new chapter in your life where you become wiser, more relaxed, and where you come first.The Benefits of the Menopause