Did you know when most people talk about menopause symptoms, they really mean perimenopause symptoms? Perimenopause feels like a word in disguise, hiding in the shadows, waiting patiently for its day in the spotlight, when the world wakes up to its masquerading Big Sister menopause. As if life wasn't complicated enough! So what do perimenopause and menopause actually mean?
Menopause - the great pretender!
Menopause actually means one year after our last period - that precise point in time. Perimenopause is the period leading up to menopause. The only real so-called 'symptom' of menopause is that we have already been a whole year without a menstrual bleed! Which usually happens around the age of 51.
The 'menopause' symptoms we may experience before that specific point in time are technically perimenopause symptoms. We are most likely perimenopausal rather than menopausal. After menopause (when we've been without a period for a full year) we can be said to be post-menopausal.
But try telling the world at large! We're all convinced menopause is the term we should be using. But for many women, by the time they actually reach menopause, those pesky 'menopause' symptoms, if you're lucky, may already be consigned to history. And you may be happily skipping off into a lovely post-menopausal, monthly bleed and PMT-free life of liberty!
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Symptoms of perimenopause (otherwise known as menopause symptoms)
So if you're in perimenopause, what can you expect? Firstly, you may not even notice. I didn't. It was a hormone test at 41 that told me I already had the hormone profile of a post-menopausal woman! That was a bit of a shock!
You may experience symptoms for a few months, several years, or no time at all! Here are the main ones to look out for. These are usually attributed to menopause but are actually part of perimenopause and therefore may start much earlier than you expect.
Time to talk
So we need to re-evaluate when symptoms are likely to start. Perimenopause symptoms can begin several years before periods stop completely. Menopause symptoms can continue after periods stop. But most women are still surprised when they start experiencing symptoms much before the age of 50. And even around 50, for many women, it still comes as a shock.
That's because menopause (and perimenopause) is still taboo. Which it shouldn't be. And it shouldn't be surprising that women in their early to mid 40s are already experiencing symptoms of 'the change'. It's just perimenopause not the Big Sister.
It's about time we talked more about what happens to women in midlife. If we're lucky enough to live past 50, menopause happens to all women. It's kind of like adolescence in reverse. And like many changes in life, embracing them rather than fighting, is a healthier way to go. How we approach perimenopause and menopause can significantly impact our experience of this stage in our lives.
A natural part of life
Perimenopause and menopause are completely natural. While we may go through a period of discomfort, neither should be considered illness. And just because our society is fixated on youth doesn't mean we have to accept the social norms relating to older women. Menopause doesn't have to be a time of loss, but a chance to embark on an exciting, less restricted and newly empowered second half.
For example, women often end up, after menopause, with more testosterone in their bodies than at any time since their 20s! I believe that levels the playing field between us and men and may go some way to explain why there are so many powerful women in midlife and beyond on the world stage. As a friend of mine likes to say, "When we're done birthing babies, we're ready to birth solutions". It also means our sexual desire may be stronger post menopause. So try not to worry too much about any stray hairs on your chin and embrace the often positive impact of these hormonal changes.
If you go to the doctor complaining of menopause symptoms and have a blood test which confirms you are in perimenopause, you may be offered HRT. But HRT remains contentious for many and there are lots of natural ways to try to manage symptoms before resorting to HRT. And it's not an illness, why manage it medically in the first instance?
What you put in place now will also help set you up for good general health in the long term.
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1. Sort out your diet
A good diet is the first place to start. Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, reduce your alcohol and caffeine intake, both of which mess with hormones and cause hot flushes, and eat natural phytoestrogens to replace the estrogen your body no longer produces with foodstuffs like flaxseeds, lentils, tofu and soy. Here's a comprehensive list of all the foodstuffs that can help.
2. Get plenty of exercise
As we age our metabolism slows down. It's easy to blame menopause for middle-age spread but the natural ageing process is just as responsible. As estrogen leaves our body we need to work harder to maintain bone health. Regular exercise, both cardio and weight bearing will help in the long term as well as assisting through perimenopause. Yoga is wonderful for maintaining strong bones and flexibility. It may even help reduce hot flushes/flashes. If you are overweight you are more likely to suffer from hot flushes. The better you feel about yourself and your general health, the more likely you are to have a positive experience of the change. Don't forget your Kegel exercises too!
3. Try natural remedies
Herbs such as black cohosh, sage and red clover can all help with symptoms particularly hot flushes. Take a fish oil supplement to help protect your bones. Sea buckthorn oil, taken as a supplement can help with vaginal dryness. Coconut oil can be eaten, used as a personal lubricant, cleanser and moisturiser. The YES organic vaginal lubricant range is wonderful and available on prescription in the UK. Here's some advice on how to stay sexy through menopause and beyond. A regular meditation practice can help ease mood swings and anxiety.
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Finally, when it comes to perimenopause, don't expect the worst but also don't suffer in silence. Get the help you need. If your symptoms are bad and natural remedies don't work, there is also HRT. Having gone through menopause at 41, I was advised to go on HRT to protect my bones and heart until I reached normal menopause age. I chose the body-identical yam-based HRT rather than pregnant mare's urine. This is also available on prescription in the UK though many doctors don't seem to know this.
So now you know the difference between menopause and perimenopause, what to expect, when to expect it and how you can help yourself. At the Mutton Club we're challenging stereotypes and changing perceptions. We think of midlife and menopause as a time of re-evaluation and regeneration as we embark on the exciting second half of our lives. I hope you agree.
The Mutton Club is an online magazine and community for smart and feisty women in midlife and beyond.