The term ‘menopause’ literally means the last menstrual period for women. Leading up to this, women go through a transitional period known as the ‘climacteric’ stage, and following the final menstrual period; a time referred to as ‘post-menopause’.
Menopause is a normal event in any woman’s life and typically occurs in ‘mid-life’, between the late 40s and early 50s. The average age for menopause is 51, although women who smoke may experience menopause earlier.
It’s important to look at menopause as the start of a new phase as opposed to the start of old age. Menopause simply marks the end of your reproductive abilities.
What are the symptoms of menopause?
The experience of menopause varies widely, and some women may suffer a range of symptoms while others experience no noticeable changes. As a general rule, half of all women will experience mild to moderate symptoms, while 25% of women will suffer more severe symptoms.
Hot flushes and night sweats
Many women experience the sensation of heat that spreads to the chest, neck, face and on some occasions, the entire body. Hot flushes can be accompanied by sweating, nausea, heart palpitations, and flushed skin.
When experienced at night, hot flushes are referred to as ‘night sweats’ and can last anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes. While some women may experience just one or two night sweats, for others they can be a daily experience.
What to do about them: Hot flushes and night sweats are a result of decreased levels of oestrogen that help control the body’s temperature. While medications such as oestrogen, anti-depressants and anti-seizure tablets can reduce hot flushes and night sweats, the implications of taking such medication can be harmful and produce unwanted side-effects. Some women choose to take soy supplements, which claim to act like oestrogen or the herb black cohosh, but the safest way to treat hot flushes is to find some quiet time. Relaxation and stress reduction techniques, such as yoga, meditation and deep breathing, are proven to help ease hot flushes and come with the added benefit of improving sleep quality.
A woman may not need to experience night sweats to be woken from her sleep when adjusting to menopause. Some women find difficulty in sleeping and experience wakefulness for no apparent reason.
What to do about it: It’s important to stay as comfortable as possible when hopping into bed, and this means wearing loose clothing and clothing made of natural fibres, such as cotton. Your bedroom should be cool and well ventilated, and a regular bedtime schedule should be kept.
Diet has been known to affect sleep, so avoid eating certain foods before bed, such as spicy food, and avoid alcohol and caffeine. Instead, try eating a piece of wholegrain bread or a handful of cherries, which contain melatonin needed to regulate sleep.
During the peri-menopausal period (the period before and up to 12 months after the final menstrual period), some women may experience irregular periods that stop and start with no regular pattern. Periods can be light or heavy, short or long.
What to do about it: While it is common, women experiencing irregular periods should still speak with their doctor, as irregular or heavy bleeding can be a sign of gynaecological cancers. In addition, it’s a good idea to always carry a pad with you.
The decreased level of oestrogen associated with menopause can cause thinning of the vaginal lining, leaving the vagina feeling dry. This dryness, as well as reduced elasticity of the vaginal walls, can mean penetrative sex is often painful.
What to do about it: Vaginal creams are not intended for use as a personal lubricant for sexual intercourse, but when applied daily can help improve vaginal dryness. They can also pump up the vaginal tissue and help increase sex drive. Some women like to add grape seed, sunflower or coconut oil to a bath to also help prevent vaginal dryness.
During menopause, women are more susceptible to urinary tract infections, which include painful and frequent urination, the urge to urinate when the bladder is empty, or a strong and unpleasant odour. Incontinence can also become a problem.
What to do about it: To prevent bladder infections, it’s essential you drink plenty of fluids. Some insist that unsweetened cranberry juice is an especially good choice, as it can make urine more acidic. Try to go to the toilet only when your bladder is full, and strengthen your pelvic floor (Kegel Excercises) muscles by tightening the muscle 10-20 times, three times a day.
Joint and muscle aches
Stiffness is a common symptom of menopause, with pain often experienced in the hands, knees, hips, lower back and shoulders. Muscles feel tight and strained and cramping can occur.
What to do about it: Stretching is one of the best ways to alleviate joint and muscle pain, and some women find treatments such as acupuncture to be helpful.
Skin and hair changes
Oestrogen plays an important role in the health of our skin and hair, and when levels are reduced they become thinner and less elastic. A skin’s texture and tone can change, and skin can appear drier or oilier. Hair can be seen too thin on the scalp and facial hair may increase.
What to do about it: If skin appears dry, you may need to vamp up your moisturising schedule, or if you are experiencing pimples and blackheads take a look at the products you are currently using to see if they could be contributing. Develop a good relationship with your hair stylist and consider a shorter, more voluminous cut to disguise thinning. Laser electrolysis can helppermanently remove unwanted hair, but can be costly.
Bones can become fragile during menopause, with bone loss continuing up to ten years after menopause.
What to do about it: The best way to ensure your bones stay healthy is to maintain strong bones throughout your life. This means eating a calcium rich diet from an early age and participating in vigorous weight-bearing exercise.
Keeping healthy during menopause
As well as specific treatment for the symptoms of menopause, a general healthy lifestyle will help ease your overall menopause experience. Keeping healthy includes:
Physical activity can help strengthen the bones that become weaker during menopause and help alleviate many of the symptoms associated with ageing. According to Australia’s National Physical Activity Guidelines, moderate exercise should be undertaken for 30 minutes at least five days of the week.
A healthy woman’s diet should include around 1300mg of calcium per day and a good level of vitamin D. While vitamin D is found in some foods, it will need to be topped up with regular bouts in the sun.
Eating at least three iron-rich food sources a day will also ensure you get enough iron in your diet. As well as iron and calcium, look for foods high in fibre, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables and drink plenty of water.
As well as a contributor of earlier menopause for some women, smoking can increase the intensity of certain symptoms. Smokers can have increased hot flushes and run a higher risk of developing osteoporosis, coronary heart disease and lung cancer.
For more information regarding an osteoporosis program, contact our friendly Health & Wellness team on either 02 9685 7567 or 02 9843 7620. Alternatively, call 1300 654 123 and request to be transferred to a consultant in the Health & Wellness Team.