Menopause marks a critical milestone for women. It can be a challenging time, but there are ways to deal with its uncomfortable symptoms.
As women approach menopause, some look forward to being freed from the monthly menstruation, but some have trepidations about potential menopausal problems.
SIGNS & SYMPTOMS
Menopause usually occurs between 45 and 55 years of age, and is said to have occurred when menstruation has ceased for 12 months. However, the hormonal fluctuations start up to 10 years before menopause; therefore, symptoms may present in the peri-menopausal period.
As hormone levels decrease, symptoms of menopause may emerge, although their presentation and severity varies greatly between individuals.
The most common symptoms of menopause are hot flushes, insomnia, vaginal dryness, irritability, mood swings and depression. Many symptoms resolve with simple dietary and lifestyle changes, the addition of a daily supplement or local therapy, while some may require hormonal therapy.
Those suffering from hot flushes should avoid hot beverages, try to sleep in a cooler environment and use layered bedding that can be easily removed when necessary. Good sleep habits are important for all but essential for those who have trouble falling asleep. They should go to bed and wake up at consistent times; relax and wind down before sleep by reading or listening to music; and avoid caffeine and alcohol late in the day. Those whose symptoms persist in spite of these measures can use supplements like red clover isoflavone.
For more severe cases, hormonal therapy may be necessary to provide relief. Increased irritability, anxiety, fatigue and depression are common complaints. Some may be due to the fluctuation in hormone levels, but many other factors like family and work issues, as well as deteriorating health, may contribute to or aggravate these problems. Relaxation and stress reduction techniques such as deep-breathing exercises and massage, adopting a healthy lifestyle (good nutrition, daily exercise) and taking time out for yourself (enjoying a self-nurturing activity) may help. Discussing mood issues with your doctor can help identify the cause and assess the severity of depression, and decide on the most appropriate treatment.
Vaginal dryness may start even in the early 40s, and may cause pain during sexual intercourse and urinary symptoms like frequency and urgency. Vaginal lubricants may decrease friction and reduce discomfort during intercourse. Those with significant vaginal atrophy and urinary symptoms may benefit from vaginal oestrogen pessary or cream treatment.
There are, however, many women with moderate to severe menopausal symptoms for whom these non-hormonal lifestyle changes provide little relief, and they will benefit from hormonal therapy (HT). The Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) results 10 years ago scared many women away from using HT altogether. We have since learnt a lot about the risks and benefits of HT.
Experts agree that, for most women, HT is okay to control moderate to severe menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes and vaginal dryness, within 10 years of menopause and up to age 59. Women should be given the lowest dose for the shortest amount of time needed to keep the symptoms under control. Individualisation is key in the decision to use hormonal therapy. Therefore, discussion between the woman and her doctor is crucial, with consideration given to the woman’s quality of life as well as personal risk factors such as age, time since menopause, and risk of blood clots, heart attack, stroke and breast cancer.
The attitude with which you embark upon this transition can have a tremendous impact on your experience. Studies show that negative beliefs held prior to menopause tend to lead to a more difficult experience. Therefore, women should approach the change positively, empowered by the knowledge that there are many means of relieving symptoms should they occur. To borrow a quote from Kim Cattrall, who starred as Samantha in the comedy series Sex and the City, “I see menopause as the start of the next fabulous phase of life as a woman. Now is a time to ‘tune in’ to our bodies and embrace this new chapter. If anything, I feel more myself and love my body more now, at 58 years old, than ever before.”