By planning ahead and knowing what to expect, you can live better with the emotional and physical symptoms of menopause. Here are seven things you should know now to help you prepare...
by Dr Marian Trudgill
1. Menopause is a transition
Menopause is defined as the moment at which a woman has not had a menstrual period for 12 consecutive months. This normally happens between the ages of 45 and 55, with the average age being 51.
However, the process leading up to menopause - known as perimenopause - can actually take several years. During this time, as the body prepares for the transition to menopause, hormone levels begin to decline and this can trigger a number of symptoms. While some menopausal side effects may last for a few months, others can persist for a number of years, even beyond your final period.
2. Menopause has a wide range of symptoms
The process of menopause affects each woman differently, but there are some common side effects, and it can help to be familiar with them. Some of the most common physical symptoms include: hot flushes (or hot flashes) and night sweats, irregular periods, problems sleeping, vaginal dryness, a loss of sex drive (libido), aches and pains, weight gain and dry, itchy skin.
Decreasing levels of the hormone oestrogen can also have other effects on your body, including changes to bone density, weaker muscle tone, and heart-related conditions such as dizziness and palpitations as a result of changes to blood flow.
While that might seem like a long list of symptoms, remember that not every woman will experience them all - and the good news is, the impact of many menopause symptoms can be reduced by making some simple lifestyle changes.
3. Healthy choices can make a difference
Healthy eating, controlling your weight and doing some regular exercise can play a key role in minimising menopause symptoms, while also protecting bone and heart health - and you can get ahead by making these changes now!
Eating a balanced diet, with plenty of lean protein, calcium and Vitamin D, wholegrains and fruit and vegetables will help you to maintain a healthy weight while giving your body the nutrients it needs to deal with the transition to menopause.
Meanwhile, avoiding certain foods and drinks, including hot, spicy foods, alcohol and caffeine, can help to reduce some symptoms, including hot flushes, while also helping you to sleep better. Many women also find that taking a dietary supplement can help with menopause side effects. (Please note: you should always consult a doctor before taking any nutritional supplement.)
Regular exercise, such as swimming, yoga or walking, can also have a number of benefits, including strengthening the heart, joints and bones, and helping to regulate your weight and hormones. It also has the added bonus of aiding sleep and boosting your mental well-being.
4. You'll have to deal with emotions
As well as the physical symptoms, the onset of menopause can cause a number of emotional issues, including sudden mood swings, anxiety and depression. Many women also have trouble concentrating or remembering things.
Menopause often coincides with other key life events too, such as the children leaving home, or elderly parents needing care, which only adds more pressure to the mix.
Taking all this into account, it’s not surprising that the menopause can cause issues with anxiety, stress at work and problems in your relationships with others. However, there are a number of things you can do to help reduce your stress levels, including doing some gentle exercise, spending time in nature, and just taking some time out to sit quietly or do the things you enjoy.
Many women also find that practising a relaxation technique, such as deep breathing, yoga or mindfulness can help to reduce stress and anxiety - you might want to try out some techniques ahead of time, to see what works for you.
5. Anticipate changes to your sex life
As hormone levels fluctuate, it’s common for women to experience issues with low libido and vaginal dryness, which can make sex uncomfortable or even painful. In addition, the onset of menopause can cause the pelvic floor muscles to become weaker, which can affect your ability to enjoy sex and reach orgasm.
On top of this, anxiety, depression or problems with body image can also affect a woman’s confidence in the bedroom.
There are a number of products you can use to help make things more comfortable and enjoyable, including a range of natural vaginal lubricants and moisturisers.
Doing regular pelvic floor exercises can also help to strengthen your core muscles - and this is something you can begin now. Simply clench the muscles around your back passage, vagina and urethra, hold for 2 seconds, and relax for 2 seconds. Repeat this 5-10 times, three times a day. The Live Better With community also recommend the Elvie pelvic floor trainer, which uses biofeedback to track your progress.
You can see a range of Live Better With recommended products to help with vaginal dryness and low libido here. And why not read our guide to The best intimate aids to help having sex during menopause.
6. Preparing for hot flushes and night sweats
Hot flushes (hot flashes) and night sweats are one of the most common complaints during menopause, with around 75% of women experiencing them. They can be very uncomfortable and at times embarrassing, and can also impact on your sleep.
However, there are lots of things you can do to help make things more comfortable, including making sure your bedroom is cool and dark, dressing in layers, and using lighter bedding made from cotton or bamboo, which is naturally soft and moisture-wicking.
7. Remember - this too shall pass
It may be uncomfortable, inconvenient and at times challenging, but it can help to remember that the menopause is a natural phase of life, and it will eventually come to an end.
It’s important to keep the lines of communication open, by talking to your partner or a friend about how you feel and the changes you are experiencing. You may want to begin now - doing some research with your partner could help you both to be prepared.
By knowing about the symptoms, and preparing in advance, you can help to understand why these changes are happening, and make the transition to menopause as smooth as possible.
Do read our articles on Perimenopause: How to spot the signs and symptoms and what to do about them, and How to talk to your family about menopause.
You can read a range of other informative articles and guides on understanding and preparing for menopause here.
Do you have any tips and tricks for preparing for the menopause? You can share your experiences or look for advice on the Live Better With Menopause Community Forum.