Surprising Symptoms of the Menopause
Going through menopause and experiencing some symptoms that you really weren't expecting? Don't panic – it's all part of 'the Change'…
What is the menopause?
The menopause refers to that time in every woman’s life when her periods stop and her ovaries lose their reproductive function. Usually, this occurs between the ages of 45 and 55. In the UK the average age is 51. In a few exceptional cases women may become menopausal in their 30s, or even younger. This is then known as a premature menopause, or premature ovarian insufficiency.
The menopause is influenced by hormones – or more correctly, by a change in hormone levels.
During a woman’s fertile years, her ability to produce an egg each month is associated with the release of three reproductive hormones (oestradiol, oestrone and oestriol), that are referred to collectively as oestrogen. Oestrogen is mainly produced by the ovaries, though small amounts are also made by the adrenal glands and by the placenta of a pregnant woman.
It is oestrogen which stimulates female characteristics at puberty and controls a woman’s reproductive cycle: the development and release of an egg each month (ovulation) for implantation in the uterus (womb), and the way in which the lining of the womb thickens to accept a fertilized egg. The monthly period happens because no implantation has taken place – there is no pregnancy – and the lining of the womb is shed.
As women get older, their store of eggs in the ovary decreases and their ability to conceive diminishes. At this time, less oestrogen is produced, causing the body to behave differently. However the body does not stop producing oestrogen overnight, and the process can even take several years, during which symptoms arise gradually. This gradual change is called the ‘peri-menopause’.
At around the age of 50-55 years, the monthly cycle stops completely – so no more ovulations, no more periods and no more pregnancies. This is the menopause.
What happens & how does it feel?
For some women this loss of reproductive ability may be deeply felt, and for all women the menopause is a personal experience, not just a medical condition. However, the diminishing release of oestrogen from the ovary as women advance into their 40s is often the cause of symptoms which can be distressing and may need medical attention.
Hot flushes are the most common symptom of the menopause, occurring in three in every four menopausal women. Other common symptoms include night sweats, sleeplessness, vaginal dryness, irritated skin, more frequent urinary incontinence and urinary tract infections, low mood and a reduced interest in sex. Symptoms vary hugely in duration, severity and what impact they have between women.
All the common symptoms of the menopause are associated with a decrease in the body’s production of oestrogen. Lack of oestrogen can affect many parts of the body, including the brain, causing changes in emotional well-being, and the skin, influencing its elasticity and thickness.
Once the ovaries have ceased their production of oestrogen, other changes take place which may have more of an effect on long-term health.
Most commonly these changes affect the strength and density of bones, increasing the risk of the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis.
The bones of the female skeleton depend on oestrogen to maintain their strength and resistance to fracture. However, while there’s no mistaking a hot flush or vaginal dryness, there are no obvious symptoms of osteoporosis – the first sign is usually the fracture of a bone. It’s for this reason that osteoporosis has been called “the silent epidemic”.
There is also some evidence that oestrogen deficiency is the cause of some chemical changes in the body which make women after the menopause especially vulnerable to heart disease and stroke.
What can be done?
A healthy lifestyle can minimize the effects of the menopause, helping to keep the heart and bones strong. Many women feel that this is a good time to review the way they treat their body. Here are some tips to give your body the easiest ride:
• CHEW OVER YOUR DIET The fall in hormone levels (namely, oestrogen) that accompanies the menopause can increase the risk of heart disease and osteoporosis. A healthy diet is essential at this stage: keep it low in saturated fat and salt to reduce blood pressure, and rich in calcium and vitamin D to strengthen bones. Some women take dietary supplements to help get the balance right
• KEEP ON YOUR FEET Some women experience increased anxiety during the menopause. Regular exercise helps to overt stress into positive energy, while guarding against heart disease. A regular, varied programme is best: try cycling, swimming, running or aerobics
• STOP SMOKING Smoking has been shown to lead to an earlier menopause and trigger hot flushes. If you smoke you also run a higher risk of developing osteoporosis and Coronary Heart Disease (CHD), which is the most common form of death in women
• DRINK WITHIN REASON The combination of excessive alcohol and hormonal instability is a risky one! Alcohol increases flushes and is associated with an increased risk of breast cancer. Try not to drink more than 2 to 3 units of alcohol per day, and keep at least one day a week alcohol-free
• MAKE USE OF HEALTH SCREENING SERVICES Studies have shown that a late menopause leads to an increased risk of breast cancer. The NHS offers screening, but you should also keep a check on any changes in your breasts, and seek advice if they occur
• STAY CALM & POSITIVE Hormone imbalance during the menopause can result in added stress and even depression. Relaxation techniques and counselling can be very helpful in coping with anxiety.
The Daisy Network
The Daisy Network provides support and information for women who have experienced a premature menopause.
The Hysterectomy Association
The Hysterectomy Association provides well-explained, impartial information about hysterectomy and its long term health implications.
0843 289 2142
Manage my menopause
National Osteoporosis Society (NOS)
0808 800 0035
(Monday & Wednesday-Friday 9am-5pm – now open Tuesday 11am-7pm)