Menopause is a natural transition in every woman’s life, yet it’s still not something that’s widely understood or spoken about. Symptoms are wide-ranging and many women say they don’t realise what’s happening to them at first; with some reporting feeling as though they were going mad.
Because the menopausal transition is a normal part of getting older, it’s not uncommon for women to think they have to simply ‘get on with it’ and struggle in silence. But if menopausal symptoms are getting in the way of your happiness, then it’s important to realise that you’re not alone, and that there is help and support available. According to Nuffield Health, approximately 13 million women in the UK are currently peri or post-menopausal, with over 60% of women experiencing symptoms that result in behavioural changes, and 1 in 4 women experiencing severe physical or psychological symptoms.
The good news is that there are plenty of things that you can do to help navigate your menopausal transition with confidence. Equipping yourself with as much factual information as possible, getting tips on how to ease unwanted symptoms, and knowing where to turn for help and support are some of the key ways that you can feel empowered to take control of this new phase in life.
Below, we discuss what menopause is, what symptoms can look like and offer a few suggestions on ways to help manage this natural transition.
What is menopause?
A woman is said to have reached menopause when her periods have stopped, because her ovaries are no longer producing eggs, and she can no longer fall pregnant naturally. Periods might stop very suddenly, or they might gradually reduce in the months or years leading up to menopause.
Menopause is a natural part of the ageing process, which typically occurs between the ages of 45-55 years old. The average age for a woman to reach menopause in the UK is 51 (NHS), however, around 1 in 100 women will experience menopause before the age of 40. This is known as premature or early menopause, or premature ovarian insufficiency.
You might also hear the term perimenopause. This means “around menopause” and is used to describe the process leading up to menopause when your oestrogen levels (the main female hormone produced by the ovaries) start to drop or fluctuate much more than they usually would. Most women experience perimenopause in their 40s – but some can start noticing changes as early as their mid 30s. The process usually lasts around 4 years, but for some women, it lasts only a few months.
Once a woman has had no periods at all for 12 consecutive months, she is said to have reached menopause, and is then considered to be post-menopausal. At this stage, while some women will experience no or very few physical or psychological effects as a result of their lower oestrogen levels, many women can continue to experience post-menopausal symptoms for up to 15 years.
What causes menopause?
Menopause is usually a direct result of ageing, because as women get older, their ovaries produce less sex hormones – particularly oestrogen – and no longer produce an egg each month. It is still currently unknown why some women experience this drop in hormones before the age of 40.
However, medical treatments like chemotherapy, radiotherapy or some breast cancer treatments can bring on early menopause. As can having surgical procedures to remove the womb (hysterectomy) or ovaries (oophorectomy) – or having an underlying condition such as Down’s Syndrome or Addison’s disease.
What are the symptoms of menopause?
Symptoms associated with perimenopause and menopause are incredibly varied and wide ranging, which can sometimes make it difficult to identify. About 75% of women who go through menopause will experience symptoms (BBC).
Some of the most common symptoms that women might experience include:
- Hot flushes (where a sudden feeling of warmth spreads across the body)
- Weight gain
- Mood changes (including anxiety, depression and panic attacks)
- Problems with memory and concentration
- Loss of libido
- Vaginal dryness
- Joint and muscle pain
- Irregular or reduced periods
- Sleep problems
Less common symptoms, that you might also experience can include:
- Skin problems e.g. acne, dryness
- Hair loss
- Brittle nails
- Dry mouth
- Bladder problems e.g. weakness, infections
Everyone’s journey through menopause can be different, so it’s important not to compare yourself too much to anyone else – or to apologise for or feel embarrassed about your symptoms. It’s an entirely natural part of ageing that every woman will go through.
What options do I have for managing menopausal symptoms?
If any of the symptoms above are bothering you or making you miserable, then it’s worth making an appointment to see your GP. They will usually be able to confirm whether you’re going through menopause based on your symptoms alone, but in some cases, they will also carry out a blood test. Once your menopause has been confirmed, your GP will be able to talk you through all your options – some of which could include:
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
Some women opt for hormone replacement therapy (HRT). This treatment is available in various different forms – tablets, gels, skin patches, implants – and replaces the oestrogen that a woman’s body no longer produces because of menopause. Doing so, can help to ease menopause symptoms such as hot flushes, vaginal dryness, loss of libido and mood swings, which have been brought on by a drop in the body’s natural oestrogen levels. It can also prevent the weakening of bones, which can lead to osteoporosis.
There has been a lot of controversy surrounding HRT because some forms of it can carry an increased risk of developing breast, ovarian and womb cancers. But this will largely depend on what type you take, how long you take it for, when you start taking it, your age, and whether you have any underlying health conditions. The balance of risks will be different for each person, so it’s best to discuss with your GP which option might be best for you, based on your individual circumstances. To find out some more general information about HRT, have a read of this NHS guide.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
If your symptoms are psychological, for example, anxiety or a low mood, then your GP might suggest that you try a therapy like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT is designed to help you understand how your thoughts influence your behaviour, so that you can develop coping mechanisms to help you deal with any specific problem thoughts. If you’d like to know more about CBT, then you might want to read our introductory guide.
Some women find that they are able to manage menopause symptoms through making a series of lifestyle changes – your GP will usually advise further on specific changes that could make the biggest difference to you based on your menopause symptoms and current lifestyle. For example:
- You might find that certain food or drinks – like caffeine, alcohol or sugary foods – trigger hot sweats, night sweats or mood swings. So by managing your intake of these, you might find that some symptoms improve.
- Drinking more water can also help to combat some of the dryness that women can experience throughout menopause, and can help you avoid dehydration, which can trigger hot flushes.
- Making sure that you get enough vitamin D and calcium can help to keep your bones strong.
- Taking regular exercise and eating healthy, balanced meals can boost your mood, help you maintain a healthy weight and improve joint and bone health.
For more tips on how to manage menopause symptoms naturally, it’s worth taking a look at this article from Healthline on 11 natural ways to reduce symptoms of menopause.
If you’re experiencing psychological or emotional symptoms, then you might also find that something like mindfulness or deep breathing techniques – which can help you to connect with yourself and your surroundings on a deeper level – can bring you some peace.
If menopausal symptoms are affecting you at work, then you could also try speaking to your employer, to see what additional help and support they might be able to offer you – for example flexible working hours, or a temperature controlled work space. To find out more about your options at work, have a read of this guidance from Acas.
Specific treatment for vaginal dryness or itchiness
If you’re experiencing vaginal dryness or itchiness, then there are creams, moisturisers, and lubricants that can help – both over the counter and from your GP. It’s also worth steering clear of perfumed cleansing products or harsh chemicals as much as possible, as these can make the problem worse. To find out more about vaginal dryness and how to treat it, have a read of this article from the NHS.
What if my symptoms don’t improve?
If HRT, CBT or making a series of lifestyle changes don’t help improve your menopausal symptoms, then your GP may refer you to a menopause specialist. It’s important to be honest and persistent with your GP about symptoms that are not improving, so that they can refer you to the correct services if needed. It is also completely fine to ask to speak to a female GP at your local practice if that would make you feel more comfortable.
7 tips for coping with menopause
1. Keep a diary
Going through menopause can sometimes feel as though you’re on a rollercoaster. Your emotions can change by the hour, which can be exhausting. Some women also begin a grieving process when they reach menopause. This grief can be related to a loss of youth, the uncertainty of ageing, or a sadness about their loss of fertility.
Writing down how menopause is making you feel – both physically and emotionally – can act as a stress reliever and can also allow you to keep track of your symptoms and emotional journey. Managing your symptoms can sometimes require a bit of trial and error, so keeping a record of everything can offer clarity about what works and perhaps, doesn’t work, for you. It can also enable you to feel more in control of your life – which can make things seem less scary and more manageable.
2. Don’t be afraid to speak up
Research carried about by Nuffield Health, shows that two thirds of women feel that there is a general lack of support and understanding about menopause, and 72% of women say that they feel unsupported at work – with 9 in 10 women saying that they feel uncomfortable talking to managers at work about menopause.
If menopause is disrupting your life, then speaking to other people about it might not always feel easy. Perhaps you’re worried that people won’t understand or will judge you, thinking you’re being dramatic – or maybe it’s a sensitive topic for you, and you’re worried about getting upset if you try to talk to anyone about it. While this is perfectly understandable, it’s important to remember that you shouldn’t have to struggle in silence. Your GP can help you explore how to best manage your symptoms, your partner or friends and family members will often be able to offer emotional support, and your employer might be able to make suitable adjustments to your working conditions.
If the idea of speaking to others about your experience with menopause feels too overwhelming, then try starting small – for example, by making an appointment with your GP. When you phone up to make your appointment, it’s worth asking if you can see the doctor who is most experienced in menopausal matters. It’s also worth making a note of all your symptoms and anything you’d like to discuss before you go – so that you don’t forget anything if you feel nervous or anxious. Sometimes having a doctor confirm and validate your symptoms can make talking to people at home and work about how menopause is affecting you feel easier.
Once you start speaking to people around you about menopause that is impacting your life, you will probably find that other women in your life might have had, or are currently having, similar experiences to you. There can be a lot of comfort in realising that you’re not alone, and being able to swap feelings and advice with someone who’s in a similar position. Although menopause can often feel like a great taboo, it’s important to remember that it doesn’t have to be.
If you don’t feel that you have any family or friends that you can talk to about menopause (or even if you do), then you might find it helpful to join a menopause support group. Meetup.com has a list of menopause support groups currently in operation around the UK – so it’s worth having a look to see if you can find a group near you. If not, then you could consider starting your own. There’s likely to be plenty of women in your local area looking for advice and support too.
3. Equip yourself with as much knowledge as possible
Knowledge is power, so one of the best ways to take control of your menopause is to equip yourself with as much information about it as possible. It’s worth doing plenty of reading, speaking to doctors, nurses, occupational therapists or other health professionals who can help answer any questions you might have. It can also be helpful to speak to those close to you about their own experiences of menopause. Every woman goes through menopause at some stage in their life, so chances are, it won’t be too difficult to find someone who can relate to what you’re going through and offer some advice. Having all the facts means that you will usually be more aware of your choices and options when it comes to coping with menopause.
4. Stay active
Exercise is important for helping us to stay fit and healthy at all stages of life – but especially during menopause. When your hormone levels are constantly fluctuating, exercise can be a great emotional outlet and mood booster. It’s possible that the last thing that you feel like doing is exercising when your menopausal symptoms are particularly bad, but a lot of women say that doing what they can to keep moving – even if it’s a long walk, or a relaxing yoga session – can make the world of difference. Some women experience weight gain during their menopausal transition, and exercise can help you to maintain a healthy weight, and feel more confident in your own skin.
If you’re having hot flushes, then you might worry that building up a sweat will only make them worse, but research carried out by the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University found that women who undertook regular workouts during a four month period had less frequent and less intense hot flushes. For more information about what hot flushes are and how to control them, have a look at this NHS guide.
5. Make time for you
Menopause alone can be overwhelming, but couple this with a busy work and/or family life, and it’s easy to feel as though you’re struggling to cope. Taking time for yourself during menopause is particularly important. You need space and time to reflect on and come to terms with what you’re feeling, to be kind to yourself, and to rest and relax.
It’s not always easy to prioritise your own needs over those of your friends, family or employer, but having even an hour a day where you can phone a friend for a chat, relax with a good book in the bath or do some exercise, can work wonders for your general wellbeing.
6. Review your diet
Lower oestrogen levels brought on by menopause will slow down your metabolism and make you more sensitive to carbohydrates and sugars, which means it becomes easier to store fat and losing weight will typically take longer. While this can feel frustrating, making some simple changes to your diet – like eating more vegetables and proteins and slightly less carbohydrates – can help. Eating plenty of high-quality protein is especially important during menopause because falling oestrogen levels can lead to a decline in muscle mass.
To further adjust to this loss of muscle mass, experts also recommend that women who have reached menopause, should consume around 200 calories per day less than they did before menopause. So, cutting down your portion sizes and staying active can help with this. It’s also worth noting that certain foods have been known to make menopause symptoms better or worse. For example, a high salt intake has been linked to lower bone density in menopausal women, so lowering your salt intake can reduce your risk of this.
While making some small, sustainable changes to your diet can be helpful during and post menopause, it’s never a good idea to try crash dieting or making any other dramatic changes to your diet that simply aren’t sustainable – as this will just place additional physical and emotional strain on your body.
If you’d be interested in reading more about how you can make your diet work for you during or post-menopause, have a read of this article from Healthline.
7. Try to see menopause as the beginning, not the end
It’s easy to see menopause as the end of fertile years, or the end of your youth, and to feel sad about this. While it’s healthy to give yourself an initial grieving period if you need one, it can help to try and identify some positives too. Some women find that menopause can also be a good time to take a step back, focus on their own needs, find clarity about what matters most to them, and to consider what they really want to pursue in this new life chapter.
While menopause can sometimes be difficult to cope with – at least to start with – some post-menopausal women report discovering a new sense of freedom, and feeling empowered. Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and monthly periods are now things of the past, and there’s no need to take contraception or consider the risk of pregnancy. At the same time, if you have children who are now grown-up, you could find yourself with more time to focus on your personal and professional goals – something you might not have been able to do for a while.
After 50 plus years, menopause can also be another aspect of life experience to tuck under your belt with the relationship highs and lows, work experience, parenting – plus everything else. Some women say that this helps them to feel more confident moving forward, because they know that they can handle whatever else comes their way.
Menopause – NHS Information on causes, symptoms and treatment
NHS Choices – ‘Live Well’ menopause pages Healthy living and self-help tips
Let’s Talk Menopause Providing women and employers with evidence-based information and support
- NICE guidelines on menopause diagnosis and management and additional information for the public Evidence-based guidelines and information on the diagnosis and management of menopause in the UK
Resources to help guide you through your menopause journey
Menopause Support Educational workshops and menopause consultations with a menopause expert
Menopause and Me Tools and support to help to make informed choices when it comes to managing your symptoms.
Healthtalk Hear about other womens’ experiences with menopause
Menopause Matters Information, tips and advice on all menopausal matters
Menopause Exchange Independent advice about midlife, the menopause and post-menopausal health
- Manage my Menopause Tailored menopause support and advice
Coping with menopause in the workplace
Menopause in the workplace
Training, e-learning and resources
Acas – Guidance for employers to help manage the impact of menopause at work
Advice, guidance and the law
Get your organisation talking about menopause
A final note…
Understanding your body, speaking up and not being afraid to put yourself first sometimes, are some of the most helpful ways to cope with menopause – in addition to speaking with your GP. Always keep in mind that just because menopause is a natural process, this doesn’t mean that your feelings should be sidelined or not taken seriously. Everything you’re feeling is valid, and there’s no reason to feel embarrassed about letting others know what you’re going through, and suggesting ways that they can help.
If you’re experiencing symptoms that are affecting your ability to cope with daily life, then you don’t have to struggle by yourself. There are plenty of options out there to help make life easier for you, and we hope that at least some of the suggestions in this article will help. Your health and happiness are paramount, so it’s important that menopause doesn’t get in the way of you enjoying life. With the right support, it can be a time of liberation, positivity and the start of a new and fabulous phase of life.
What are your experiences with menopause? Do you have any tips or advice that you would offer to other women who are struggling with menopausal symptoms? Email us at [email protected] or leave a comment below.