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Menopause is still a taboo subject and in our youth-obsessed culture, it can often knock a woman's confidence. It certainly knocked mine. But it really shouldn't be that way. Menopause happens to all women if we live long enough and it can mark the start of an exciting new stage in our lives.
But because we don't talk about it, a lot of misconceptions persist. Here are some of the most common myths about menopause and tips I found helpful on my journey.
1. Menopause doesn't happen until you're in your 50s.
Menopause can take place any time after puberty. Yes, really! Some women experience premature menopause, more often known as Premature Ovarian Insufficiency (POI), in their late teens or early 20s. This can be a devastating condition when the ovaries simply don't work properly. Approximately one in every hundred women under the age of 41, one in 1,000 women under 30 and one in 10,000 women under 20 experiences POI. According to the Daisy Network which supports sufferers of premature menopause or POI, 110,000 women in Britain, between the ages of 12 and 40 are affected. A spontaneous (natural) early menopause affects approximately 5% of the population before the age of 45 and many women experience early menopause as a result of surgery or cancer treatment.
2. Menopause takes place over several years.
Menopause actually means a distinct point in time. It's defined as 1 year after your last period. The process by which we arrive at menopause is actually known as the perimenopause. If you're suffering from 'menopausal' symptoms and you're still menstruating, you're actually suffering from perimenopausal symptoms. The perimenopause lasts on average five years with menopause occurring most often around 52. So don't be surprised if you're experiencing perimenopausal symptoms in your late or even early 40s. And remember five years is the average - it could be shorter or often quite a bit longer.
3. All women suffer menopausal symptoms.
Some women sail through menopause and may not notice until their periods stop or they have their hormones checked. It's not a prerequisite that a woman suffer! In fact, in some areas of the world, many women don't suffer at all. For example, in East Asia, in countries like China and Japan, menopausal symptoms are reported to be much less prevalent than in the West. I'd like to see more research into why that is. Is it diet, environment, culture or a combination of all of those?
4. Menopause automatically results in a loss of libido.
Menopause, coming as it does in the late 40s /early 50s for most women, may also coincide with stagnating relationships, problems with teenagers, caring for elderly parents and empty nest syndrome. Any loss of libido you may be suffering may not just be related to hormonal changes, but linked to all the other stuff going on! By the time you're through menopause, you may have more testosterone in your body than you had in your 20s. You may suffer from vaginal dryness because of a decrease in oestrogen, but your sex drive may be better than ever! So don't assume the menopause is to blame. But do seek help if you're finding lack of libido or vaginal dryness an issue.
5. The only truly effective remedy for 'menopause' symptoms is HRT.
In the West we often see menopause as an illness so we reach for a pill. But it's not. If women reach midlife then it's going to happen to us as a natural stage of life - like puberty in reverse. HRT is useful to manage more extreme symptoms and is usually prescribed in cases of premature menopause. But as with any drug, there are health risks associated with taking it. If your doctor advises HRT, ask about the more bio-identical kind, often available on prescription in the UK. It sure beats the pregnant mares' urine used in Premarin. But for regular menopause, there are many other possible remedies to try before resorting to HRT. See below!
Top tips for helping you THRIVE through menopause
1. Start with a good diet.
There are certain foods that are good at any stage of life and particularly so for women in midlife. Foods that include phytoestrogens like soya and flax seeds, for example, are widely thought to ease menopausal symptoms. Eat plenty of vegetables and oily fish. Try to cut down on caffeine and avoid added sugar and refined carbohydrates to stop blood sugar (and mood) swings. Reducing alcohol may also help as it's known to affect hormones, as well as reducing calcium absorption which we need for healthy bones. Avoid processed foods and eat more nuts and healthy fats like those from olive oil and avocados. Dr Marilyn Glenville is a great source of advice on diet for menopause.
2. Step up the exercise.
Sounds like a chore huh? But it's honestly the best way to keep in shape as you go through menopause. Alternate more aerobic forms of exercise such as dancing or running, with stretching such as pilates or yoga. Walking is really great, even better than cycling at burning calories. Swimming is easier on achy joints. If you eat the same as always and don't exercise, you're going to put on weight as your metabolism slows down. That's true of ageing in general not just menopause. But studies suggest that exercise can help with many menopause symptoms especially hot flushes/flashes.
3. Don't suffer in silence.
If menopause symptoms like hot flushes, night sweats, vaginal dryness, lack of libido or depression are impacting your life, get advice and take back control. As well as the dietary and exercise suggestions above, try black cohosh for hot flushes. If vaginal dryness is an issue, a good vaginal lubricant like organic Yes, (on prescription in the UK) can work wonders. Mindfulness meditation is proven to help with depression. Pelvic floor exercises can radically improve any urinary incontinence issues and orgasms. Double whammy!
4. Talk to your partner, family and friends about the physical and emotional changes you're experiencing.
These changes are normal. But your nearest and dearest may start to wonder if you're perhaps less patient than usual! If you keep loved ones in the loop they're less likely to judge. It's particularly important to talk openly with your partner, who may be confused by the different responses they get from you. Friends can offer valuable support, as well as learning from a shared experience. It's time to talk about menopause!
5. Don't see menopause as an illness.
Menopause happens to every woman and taking an open approach to it can transform your experience of it. It actually doesn't need to mean the loss of anything except your menstrual cycle - and if it comes at the usual time, how liberating can that be? In cultures where older women are more respected and appreciated for their continuing contribution to society, there are far fewer problems with menopause than in the West. Who's to say there isn't a connection!
So there you have it. Myths busted and top tips to follow. Menopause can be liberating if you let it be. How you view it can transform the experience and what comes after. For more information and inspiration hop on over to the Mutton Club where our mission is to celebrate and empower women in midlife and beyond. Midlife is just the begining!