How to manage symptoms of the menopause
What is the menopause?
The menopause is the time of life when a woman’s periods stop, it's a natural biological process, officially diagnosed when a woman hasn't had a menstrual period for 12 months. It usually occurs between the ages of 45 and 55 - and in the UK, the average age for women to reach the menopause is 51.
In some cases, women may experience early menopause - when a woman's period stops before the age of 45. If your periods have become infrequent or have stopped completely before this age, you should speak to your GP.
Causes of the menopause - atresia
The menopause often occurs naturally when a woman's ovaries run out of eggs. At birth, most women have up to three million eggs. These are gradually lost throughout their life with most eggs dying off through a process known as atresia. Only a small percentage are actually lost to ovulation. On average, when a female enters their first menstrual cycle, she has an average of 400,000 eggs - reducing to around 10,000 by the time the menopause starts.
When the menopause starts, eggs become resistant to a reproductive follicle-stimulating hormone known as FSH which dramatically reduces the production of oestrogen. This is believed to be the cause of the symptoms associated with the menopause.
Sometimes, conditions such as cancer, where chemotherapy or the removal of the ovaries is required, can induce early menopause. This can result in more severe symptoms than if it was a natural part of aging.
Symptoms of the menopause
As well as the reduction of oestrogen production, testosterone production is also decreased. This can often lead to the following symptoms.
1. Irregular periods
This may include having periods more closely together or spaced further apart than usual, whilst also experiencing unusually light or heavy periods, before stopping completely. This can give women a good indication that they're about to reach the menopause.
2. Hot flushes/night sweats
This is the most common symptom of the menopause which is a sudden feeling of heat which can result in a red, flushed face and sweating. These occur in eight out of ten women and last for around seven years on average. Unfortunately, these cannot be stopped but certain triggers such as smoking, caffeine and alcohol can make them more severe during the menopause.
3. Vaginal dryness
As the amount of oestrogen reduces during the menopause, a woman's vagina can also become less lubricated. This can lead to symptoms of pain and discomfort throughout the day as well as pain during sex. It's likely that symptoms will continue as more years pass after the menopause.
4. Mood changes and anxiety
Some women may experience mood swings and anxiety whilst experiencing the menopause. Getting plenty of rest and exercise may help to combat the feelings of low moods or irritability.
Tips to tackle the menopause symptoms
Here are tips for tackling some of the unwanted symptoms of the menopause – although it may be wise to see your GP if you feel that things are becoming difficult to manage.
1. Maintain a healthy lifestyle
As oestrogen levels drop, the menopause brings an increased risk of heart disease and osteoporosis. Sticking to a healthy diet that’s low in saturated fat and salt can help keep your blood pressure low. Calcium-rich foods such as green leafy vegetables, low-fat yogurt and milk - vitamin D from oily fish and eggs or supplements can help to keep bones strong.
Regular exercise can help reduce symptomatic anxiety and stress – and also keeps the heart healthy. Keep alcohol, caffeine and sugar to a minimum – and, as always, stopping smoking is recommended. Smoking has been shown to lead to hot flushes (as well as triggering other well-documented health-related chronic illnesses).
2. Start a conversation
Remember that you're not alone. Although it’s been largely swept under the carpet by previous generations, there is definitely a movement towards being more open about going through the change. Counsellor Rachel Weiss founded the Menopause Café in Perth, Scotland in 2017 to get women – and men – together and chatting about this life stage over a cuppa. “My aim was to get conversations started,” says Rachel. “Although this is something that all women go through, very little is spoken about the menopause.”
3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
If you have any concerns over the symptoms – or indeed, if you are concerned because your menopause is delayed (which can lead to an increased risk of breast cancer), it’s important to speak to your GP rather than relying on internet research, which may not be accurate. As a Benenden Health member you can also access the 24/7 GP Advice Service as well as the 24/7 Mental Health Helpline if you feel anxious or depressed.
Treatment of the menopause symptoms
As the menopause is a natural part of the aging process among women, there are no medical or surgical treatments. Instead there are treatments that help relieve pain, symptoms and help to prevent chronic conditions that may occur.
Some women benefit from extra help to reduce some of the physical symptoms of the menopause. Benenden Hospital in Kent is one of the first hospitals in the UK to offer MonaLisa Touch ®. This is a minimally invasive treatment that delivers laser stimulation of the vagina wall tissue to alleviate thinning of the vaginal tissues and dryness, (as thinning can make intercourse uncomfortable or even painful).
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is widely used and can help to relieve the symptoms of oestrogen deficiency such as hot flushes and sleep disorders. It may be worth considering, although some people experience unwanted side effects, so it’s worth discussing with your GP.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are often helpful for conditions such as stress and anxiety which can be common during the menopause. CBT is a method of talking therapy which can help the sufferer improve feelings of anxiety or low moods.
If you’re concerned about any potential symptoms, you can make an appointment to see your GP. Alternatively, if you are a Benenden Health member, you can call our helpline for medical advice from a qualified UK-based GP, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Learn more about GP 24/7.