Menopausal complaints - inevitable or not?
Many people’s perception of the menopause is wrong.
Most women think of hot flashes, irregular periods and changeable moods - amongst other uncomfortable and unpleasant experiences – but in reality, these are symptoms of the menopause, rather than that process itself.
There are physiological changes that occur during the menopause that are inevitable – but there are many symptoms and complaints which can be avoided.
We’ll explain what the non-negotiables of the menopause are, why other symptoms occur – and some simple and practical steps you can take to reduce or remove some of the most unpleasant complaints.
What is the menopause?
The menopause is a completely natural period of a woman’s life during which the menstrual cycle and periods can change – and eventually stop – halting a woman’s ability to become pregnant naturally.
Although it is different for every individual, the menopause generally occurs for women between the ages of 45 and 55 and is a result of naturally declining estrogen hormone levels in the body.
The group of hormones known generally as ‘estrogens’ act to communicate the need for certain functions throughout the body. The most significant of these involves the release of an egg from the ovaries – which in turn causes estrogen to be produced. That estrogen prompts the body to build the lining of the uterus in preparation for a fertilised egg.
As such, when estrogen levels drop, this reproductive cycle slows then ceases.
However, estrogen has an impact on a great number of other functions throughout the body – and while many are not directly linked to menstruation – they can become extremely noticeable when hormone levels change.
What are some menopausal symptoms?
The symptoms a woman can experience through the perimenopause (time period approach the menopause) and during the menopause itself can vary enormously. That said, there are some that occur more frequently than others, such as:
- -Sudden feelings of overheating – known as ‘hot flashes’
- -Low mood or anxiety
- -Reduced sex drive
- -Night sweats
- -Discomfort during sexual intercourse
- -Tiredness, loss of memory and reduced concentration
Depending on the individual, these can begin months or years prior to your final period – and continue for 4 or more years afterward. All of these symptoms are direct results of declining hormone levels – often estrogen – in the body.
Which symptoms can be avoided?
While ceasing of the reproductive cycle cannot be avoided, virtually all the surrounding symptoms can. We’ll look at each of the 6 most common symptoms that women report around the time of the menopause – and offer some advice on alleviating or removing the issues completely.
1. Hot flashes
The correct level of hormones are generally produced by your body when you’re at the correct temperature. When estrogen levels decrease, your brain’s first assumption is that this relates to temperature – and acts accordingly, opening the blood vessels in your head and neck to release some internal heat.
Unfortunately, your brain’s automatic function isn’t quite grasping the problem – and since you’re likely to be an adequate temperature, you’ll become overheated quickly.
What can you do about hot flashes?
Unfortunately, when a hot flush occurs there’s not much to be done other than making yourself comfortable until it passes. However, you can make some changes to your surrounding life that are shown to help reduce the symptoms going forward, they include:
- -Reducing your intake of alcohol and caffeine
- -Wearing more loose-fitting clothing (especially around the neck and upper body)
- -Reducing your intake of spicy foods or foods containing monosodium glutamate (MSG)
- -Sip iced or cold drinks
- -Having a desk or handheld fan to use during a hot flash
- -Reduce or stop smoking
Generally, a hot flash is nothing to be worried about – but if they’re becoming hard to deal with talking to your doctor can help. Generally, a doctor will help you explore options that relate to hormone treatments and how the differing types could suit you.
2. Night sweats
Night sweats are directly related to hot flashes. The same internal mechanism takes place – but dispersing heat can be increasingly difficult when you’re surrounded in bed sheets.
As a result, the body turns to its next most effective heat dispersal technique – sweating. Sweat normally helps to disperse heat from the skin – but when you’re in bed and asleep it can often just leave you cold and clammy – interrupting your night.
How to reduce night sweats
Like hot flashes, there are some surrounding lifestyle steps you can take that will reduce the severity and number of night sweats you experience. They include:
- -Reducing the temperature of your bedroom
- -Having a cool or lukewarm bath prior to bed
- -Avoiding spicy foods, alcohol or caffeine
- -Having cool gel packs to hand
- -Changing one duvet for a number of sheets – helping you adjust your bed to suit your temperature
Night sweats can lead to sleeplessness – which in turn can impact your mental well-being and energy levels through the day. If you’re finding this is the case, consulting a medical professional to look at treatment options can offer a lot of relief.
3. Changeable moods
Although a woman’s menstrual cycle and mood are commonly linked – the reason why escapes the majority of people.
Estrogen production has a direct impact on the brain’s production of serotonin and endorphins – commonly referred to as the ‘feel good’ hormones. Hormone changes can occur quickly – and having lower levels of these hormones can lead to symptoms of depression and anxiety.
While people often link the words depression and anxiety with upset and worry – and while this can be true, their symptoms are often far more wide reaching and can include boredom, tiredness, anger, loneliness, compulsions, a desire to self-harm and many more.
What can you do to keep your mood stable?
Mental health is as real as physical health – yet it’s often reported that people are less likely to discuss their changing mood than a physical ailment such as a cold or a broken bone.
Talking about your mood often helps – whether that’s with an understanding loved one or a medical professional. If your mood is so low that you feel suicidal or have a desire to hurt yourself or someone else, you should seek medical attention as a matter or urgency. You’re not “going mad” – the hormones that regulate your mood are extremely powerful – and if they’re slightly out of sync a doctor will be able to support you to feel better quickly.
While it’s difficult to change your mood when you’re down – there are many things you can do that will help you keep a stable mood generally, including:
- -Taking part in some gentle daily exercise – walking is enough
- -Adjusting your diet to include more ‘whole foods’ and less sugar and starch
- -Reducing your intake of alcohol
- -Practicing relaxation techniques such as mindfulness or yoga
- -Taking some time out of the day to look after yourself and have some ‘me time’
Mental well-being is a current hot topic for medical professionals – as the links between mental and physical health are increasingly acknowledged. If you feel able, talking to your doctor can be a route to accessing some talking therapies and support groups – you’ll be amazed to find just how many people are in the same position as you.
4. Vaginal dryness
Although it is a somewhat obvious statement - the vagina is a vital part of the reproductive process – but few people realise quite how many functions the vagina is part of.
When an egg is released from the ovaries the ensuing estrogen production indicates to the vagina that fertilisation is possible. At the same time, increased serotonin levels in the brain stimulate excitement levels – explaining why women can report feeling more sexually aroused at some points in the month than others.
This heightened stimulation level causes the vagina to more readily produce natural lubrication – aiding intercourse – while also providing an environment in which sperm can thrive. When estrogen levels drop, so does the vagina’s ability to produce lubrication - often leading to dryness, irritation, itchiness and pain.
Vaginal dryness can be extremely distressing, uncomfortable and can sometimes feel embarrassing to talk about – but you are not alone if you’re experiencing this symptom of the menopause.
How can you reduce vaginal dryness?
Vaginal dryness is very common and as such, a number of products are available that can alleviate symptoms. Using a vaginal moisturiser or intimate lubricate can help – always be sure to test a small amount first as the vagina is a sensitive area. It might take a bit of trial and error to find one that works well for you.
Vaginal dryness can have an enormous impact on sex and sexual desire. For many couples, established sexual habits need to change – allowing for more time to become aroused and naturally lubricated. Talking openly with a partner might feel uncomfortable at first, but can lead to greatly improved and more comfortable experiences.
If self-help measures aren’t working then talking to a medical professional can be a big help. Remember, this is a common symptom of reduced estrogen levels and as such, doctors will see the problem almost daily. A range of hormone replacement therapies are available that could help.
5. Tiredness and fatigue
Almost all women experiencing the menopause complain of increased tiredness and levels of fatigue – and these feelings can lead on to symptoms that include feeling physically weak, under motivated and emotionally drained.
Whatever your point in life or surrounding life circumstances, these symptoms can have a huge impact on your desire to interact with work, family and pass times that you ordinarily enjoy – and in some instances, can put tremendous strain on relationships.
As with most other menopause symptoms, an imbalance or change in hormone levels is almost always the root cause.
How to combat tiredness and fatigue
Although it can be hard to enact, keeping an active and healthy lifestyle is one of the significant ways you can address feelings of tiredness and fatigue.
This is tricky – as often going for a walk, seeing friends and family – or eating a healthy meal can be the last things you want to do, but breaking downward spirals can be the key to not letting them get on top of you.
Many women report that following helped them feel more energised and motivated:
- -Light daily exercise
- -Keeping a ‘normal’ daytime routine, including good sleep patterns and meal times
- -A healthy diet that boosts energy levels
- -Avoiding excessive alcohol, caffeine and sugar consumption
In some instances, lifestyle changes don’t go far enough and medical steps can be explored to bolster your hormones levels. Seeking medical advice is important – some women explain that they feel like they’re wasting a doctor’s time complaining of tiredness – but it’s important to understand that such feelings can be an indicator of a more serious hormone imbalance.
6. Irregular periods
A great number of women around the age of menopause note that their periods change – even when they’ve been regular and predictable in earlier life.
Again, changing levels of hormones are to blame. Where estrogen has consistently communicated a need for the uterus wall to build and thicken at the appropriate time of the month – lower levels of the hormone lead to changes in menstrual cycle.
While many women report missing periods and abnormally light periods, it’s not uncommon to experience much heavier periods either – or completely unexpected momentary bleeding, leading to ‘spotting’ between normal period times.
Can you alter your changing periods?
To some degree, irregular periods – although inconvenient – can be a normal part of the physiological change your body is going though. That said, you should see your GP if:
- -You’re frequently bleeding or spotting between periods or after intercourse
- -You’re experiencing very heavy periods and are having trouble finding sanitary products that are effective
- -Your period is lasting longer than 7 days or coming more frequently than monthly
There are a number of things that can be changed to account for irregular periods, including your method of contraception, hormone treatments and lifestyle changes – but it’s better to seek medical advice to rule out underlying conditions.
Other symptoms and side effects of the menopause
While this list covers the 6 most common issues that women report as part of the menopause, it’s by no means all the side effects that occur. It’s perfectly normal to experience the following:
- -Loss of memory and concentration
- -Breast pain
- -Light-headedness and feeling dizzy
- -Gum problems including bleeding and receding gums
- -A burning or tingling sensation in your mouth or on your tongue
- -Increased migraines and headaches
- -Brittle bone conditions including osteoporosis
- -An increase or change in body odour
- -Changes in digestion and bowel movements
- -‘Pins and needles’ sensations in your hands, legs and feet
- -Joint pain and stiffness
- -Weight gain and difficulty losing weight
- -Brittle and discoloured nails
- -Itchy skin and dry eyes
- -Some level of incontinence
- -A bloated feeling in your stomach
- -Allergies that you have no experienced before
- -Mild and infrequently changes to your heartbeat
- -Depression, anxiety, panic attacks and other mental health conditions
All of these are commonly reported to doctors and medical professionals by menopausal women virtually every day – and you shouldn’t feel like you need to suffer in silence. A doctor’s first suggestion will often revolve around lifestyle changes to give your body the very best chance of adapting and adjusting to changes, these might include:
- -Suggestions around how you could improve your diet
- -Ideas around how to maintain or improve your activity levels – including walking, fitness classes, gentle swimming – and many more
- -Options for talking therapies that might help you make sense of changing moods
- -Over the counter medications or alternative therapies that can ease symptoms
Ultimately, it is your body’s changing production and reaction to estrogen and other hormones that is causing most of the menopause side effects – so don’t be alarmed if your doctor suggests Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) or other hormone based treatments.
The menopause can be a difficult time – but with the right treatment and support, that discomfort can be reduced to an absolute minimum.