Not so long ago the word “menopause” was one that was barely uttered out loud. If the subject was addressed at all, it was done in whispers, as if it was a topic to be feared. Rather than recognising it as a natural phase in the life of every woman, it felt like a taboo that should remain in the shadows.
Thankfully things are beginning to change and talking about the menopause is becoming more mainstream. This is encouraging both women and men to find out more about it and hopefully understand it better. Campaigns on Lorraine, Loose Women and across the BBC, including Radio 4 have begun to change attitudes and will help women going through this period in their lives in a much happier and calmer way.
Employers are also realising they have a part to play in generating more awareness around the topic. More women are in employment than ever before and the numbers of older women working has grown rapidly over the past few years. There are now almost 5 million women aged over 50 in employment, meaning that the menopause is likely to touch almost every workplace. Last week, Channel 4 announced they were launching their first menopause policy in recognition of this fact in an effort to end the stigma around the topic and create a better, more open working environment.
While, it is encouraging to see these developments, there is still a long way to go and the menopause is still a mystery to many. There is a lack of understanding among women about how best to cope with the changes that their body goes through. This is especially true of the perimenopause, the years leading up to when the menopause begins.
The menopause starts when a woman has gone 12 months without having a period and is no longer able to conceive children naturally. The perimenopause is the period leading up to this point and begins when the ovaries start to produce less oestrogen. On average, the perimenopause lasts for four years. In the final few years before the menopause begins, oestrogen levels rapidly reduce, and it is at this point that many women begin to experience typical menopause symptoms, such as night sweats, vaginal dryness and problems with memory and concentration.
During the perimenopause, symptoms are often erratic, as hormone levels can vary wildly. This can be really confusing and unnerving, so it’s vital that women understand what’s happening to them and realise that these swings are completely normal and not something to be worried about or a sign that something is seriously wrong with their health.
The perimenopause and menopause effect everyone differently; no two women will have exactly the same experience. Lifestyle and health factors will affect how each woman responds so symptoms can vary enormously. The most important thing is to take a proactive approach and not to suffer in silence. No matter how debilitating the symptoms are, there are things that can be done and help available.
Here are a few tips on how to live well through the perimenopause.
Women often find that they gain weight during perimenopause, so finding an exercise that you enjoy can help to prevent this. Doing it regularly can have a positive effect, making you feel fitter physically and mentally. Try to incorporate more activity into your day, making sure you raise your heart rate and get the body moving. Exercise doesn’t have to involve the gym or joining a sports team. It can be as simple as taking a walk with friends or building more of a walk into your commute to work.
Try To Eat More Healthily
Eating a better diet will also help avoid weight gain. This doesn’t mean doing anything drastic, just try and eat more fresh produce and avoid processed foods as much as you can. These often have large quantities of hidden sugar, fat and salt. Also try not to comfort eat and find healthy snacks that you enjoy if you want to eat between meals.
Practice Good Sleeping Habits
Sleep during perimenopause can often be difficult, broken and disrupted. To counteract this, try to get into good habits that will help you settle better. Remove screens from the bedroom and avoid caffeine in the afternoon as much as you can. Make your room as dark as possible and find something that relaxes you, such as taking a bath, reading a book or doing a few yoga moves before you go to bed.
Don’t let your symptoms ruin your life, have a positive attitude and try to do something about them. Ignoring what is happening is not a good option; be proactive. It will make you feel more empowered and you will discover something that works for you, even if it does take a little while to find. Just opening up and talking about how you are feeling can help enormously.
Support is there if you are struggling. Friends of a similar age are likely to be going through the same experience, so they are a good place to start. They will understand exactly how you feel and may have some useful advice or suggestions. They can also support you if you’re having a bad day and you can offer your support in return.
Don’t be afraid to seek medical advice, there is lots that specialists can do that can make a huge difference. HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy), a treatment that replaces the hormones that are reducing in a woman’s body, can be taken during perimenopause and can relieve quickly most of the most common symptoms, such as hot flushes and mood swings. HRT can also prevent osteoporosis, a weakening of the bones, which many women suffer from after the menopause. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to your GP, don’t give up on getting medical help. There are women health specialists who can offer you the support to live well through the perimenopause and beyond.
Dr Rupa Parmar is an expert in women’s health and a consultant at the BHSF Medical Practice in Birmingham city centre. She has helped hundreds of women maintain a healthy lifestyle before, during and after the menopause.