What is the menopause?
Menopause is one of life’s inevitabilities for women. We will all go through it at some point in our lives, and yet, for many, it’s still a topic we feel uncomfortable discussing or educating ourselves about. As the Guardian stated in a recent article - “The menopause affects half the population, but it’s a largely neglected issue, both in the media and when it comes to scientific research”. When it comes to the menopause, knowledge definitely is power. If you understand exactly what is happening to your body, you can take the steps to navigate this whole new phase of womanhood!
Let’s firstly break down exactly what menopause is. Ostensibly, menopause is when a woman stops having periods - it’s also when she stops being able to conceive naturally. But there’s a lot more to it than that. The female body is a delicate balancing act of hormones, many of which are geared towards helping us make babies. As we head towards menopause, the ovaries stop producing as much oestrogen and stop releasing an egg each month. As ovulation and periods go hand in hand, this is why our periods stop as we reach menopause.
One of the biggest mysteries of the menopause is when it will actually arrive. This is almost impossible to predict, although it can sometimes be influenced by genes, so it’s worth noting when your own mum went through menopause. The average age for women to begin menopause is 51, however, it can occur much earlier or later than that. If you are between 45 and 55 and haven’t had a period in three months, it’s likely you’re going through menopause, but always check in with your doctor. They will be able to test your hormone levels and search for other indicators that you’re menopausal. It is possible for women under 40 to go through menopause, although this is pretty rare. This is classed as early menopause and can sometimes be triggered by factors such as surgery or cancer treatment.
Much like puberty, menopause isn’t an overnight thing. You aren’t going to wake up one morning and find your period has disappeared into thin air. The phase leading up to full menopause is known as perimenopause. This phase can last anything from 10 months up to 10 years, and only officially ends once you haven’t had a period for 12 months. During this phase, your periods may become lighter and more infrequent. This is totally normal - but be careful - some women in their 50s have got caught out thinking they were menopausal when they were, in fact, pregnant!
During perimenopause, you will probably go through some, if not many, of the symptoms associated with menopause, including vaginal dryness, reduced libido and night sweats. The symptom that gets the most air time (read: annoying jokes and stereotypes in the media) is hot flushes. Hot flushes differ between each woman, but many report feeling a creeping heat coming across their whole body - or feeling like you’re standing in a sunbed. Flushes can last for a few minutes at a time, and - frustratingly - can occur several years after your last period. But there are ways you can manage them. Hormone replacement therapy is the best way to tackle hot flushes, but you can also help yourself day to day by investing in a fan, wearing layers you can remove and cutting down on smoking and alcohol.
The hormonal changes you experience during menopause can also lead to weight gain. Both exercise and nutrition tailored to the menopause can help you maintain a healthy weight during this period of your life and can also make you feel stronger and more empowered as you go through this transition.
However, exercise can sometimes be an intimidating activity at this stage of life, as many women going through the menopause also develop issues with incontinence. It’s very common to hear about the impact childbirth can have on your pelvic floor and bladder control but menopause can lead to urinary issues for slightly different reasons. The lack of oestrogen impacts the effectiveness of the urinary tract to control urination. This can lead to incontinence or a need to go to the toilet more frequently. Strengthening your pelvic floor muscles with exercises can help reduce the impact this has on your life, but always seek medical advice if you are concerned. Exercise classes like pilates, or a session with a women’s health physio can also help you reduce the risk of bladder leaks. At BP3, we know that it can be difficult to find the confidence to get into exercise, if you’re constantly worried about incontinence. Our secure, discreet design protects from leaks with no VPL, so you can feel confident in your gym kit once again.
But one of the most impactful ways you can navigate menopause is talking about it. The combination of symptoms and big hormonal changes definitely has the potential to impact your mental wellbeing. Talking is a great way to help you feel less stressed or alone and feeling confident in seeking out advice will help you get the support you need. It’s one of the reasons breaking down the taboo around menopause is so important. There is nothing to be ashamed of, and dismantling the stigma will allow more women to get the help and information they need.