Menopause brings lots of changes - both physical and mental - and for many women, symptoms occur for several years. But what is menopause, and what can you do to support your body during this time?
What is menopause?
Menopause is a natural part of aging, and marks the end of a woman’s reproductive years. It’s defined as the permanent cessation of menstruation and fertility, and it typically occurs between the ages of 45 and 55, with the average age being around 51 - though it can occur earlier or later for some women.
Although menopause itself is more of a point in time than a process, reaching menopause unfolds over several years, and is typically categorised into 3 different stages:
This is the transitional stage leading up to menopause. It can start years before menopause itself, and is characterised by fluctuating hormone levels and irregular periods. During perimenopause, you may experience various symptoms, such as hot flashes, night sweats, and changes in mood or libido.
Women can still become pregnant during perimenopause too, so it’s important to continue using contraception if you’re not trying to conceive.
Menopause is officially diagnosed after you’ve had 12 consecutive months without a menstrual period. During perimenopause, menstruation can become increasingly irregular, and it’s possible that your periods could stop for long periods of time - however, until it’s been 12 consecutive months, you haven’t quite reached menopause.
Once in the menopause stage, your ovaries have ceased to produce eggs, oestrogen production has significantly decreased, and it’s no longer possible to become pregnant.
Although your periods have now stopped, some women will continue to experience those familiar symptoms of perimenopause.
This is the phase that begins after menopause, and lasts for the rest of a woman’s life. During postmenopause, fluctuations in hormones tend to stabilise, and many of the symptoms experienced throughout your menopause journey so far can often decrease in both frequency and intensity.
However, there are certain health issues that can carry an increased risk post-menopause, such as osteoporosis and heart disease, so supporting your wellbeing remains vital, even if you notice a reduction in your usual symptoms.
What are the common symptoms of menopause?
Although something that affects all women, it’s important to note that the menopause experience can vary widely from one woman to another. Some women may find their symptoms to be relatively mild, while others may experience more severe and disruptive ones.
Additionally, the age at which menopause occurs can differ among individuals. Menopause can occur early - due to either medical or natural factors, such as cancer treatment, surgery, family history of early menopause, or autoimmune diseases - but in many cases, there’s no particular cause.
There’s no set timeline for menopause, and the duration of the transition stages can also vary. However, as we know, the symptoms don’t always end when you reach menopause. Symptoms of menopause can include:
- Hot flushes or night sweats
- Changes in mood, such as low mood or irritability
- Feelings of anxiety
- Joint pain/stiffness and muscle aches
- Reduced libido
- Difficulty sleeping
- Changes in body shape and/or weight gain
Getting the support you need
If you’re struggling with your symptoms at any stage of menopause, there are various treatments and management strategies you can try to make them more manageable - you don’t need to suffer in silence. We recommend speaking with your GP who can provide guidance and support as you navigate through your menopause journey. Some things they may recommend include:
Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT)
HRT is one of the most common and effective treatments for relieving menopause symptoms - it involves taking hormones (usually a combination of oestrogen and progesterone) to replace the declining levels in the body.
There are different forms of HRT, and it can be administered in various forms, including tablets, patches, gels, and creams. The decision to use HRT should be made in consultation with your healthcare provider, as it comes with potential benefits - and risks - that should be considered.
Just like menopause, the response to HRT can vary greatly on an individual basis - what works for someone else may not work for you, but with a range of methods to try, your GP can help you decide if this is an option you’d like to consider.
Some women cannot take HRT for medical reasons, while others may choose not to take HRT as a personal preference. Non-hormonal medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and selective serotonin-norepinephrine uptake inhibitors (SNRIS) may be prescribed to help with symptoms such as hot flushes and mood changes.
Healthcare providers often encourage lifestyle changes to manage menopause symptoms. Recommended modifications may include: adopting a healthy and balanced diet, getting regular exercise, managing stress through relaxation techniques, keeping to a regular sleep routine, and avoiding potential triggers like caffeine, alcohol, and spicy foods that may exacerbate hot flushes.
Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
Alongside physical changes and symptoms, menopause can also have an impact on mental health. If you’re dealing with mood changes, feelings of anxiety or depression, CBT can help with developing coping strategies and addressing emotional symptoms. If you’re finding menopause is affecting your mental health, speak with your healthcare practitioner to discuss what options are available to you.
Some women find relief from menopause symptoms through complementary and alternative therapies such as acupuncture, yoga, meditation, or herbal remedies and supplements designed to support your body through these changes. It’s important to discuss these options with your GP or another healthcare provider to ensure that they are both safe and appropriate for you personally.
Support for Your Bones
Oestrogen plays a role in maintaining bone density. The decline in oestrogen levels during menopause means that women in this stage of life are at an increased risk of reduced bone density, and also conditions like osteoporosis.
Your doctor may recommend calcium and vitamin D supplements - the dynamic duo of nutrients when it comes to maintaining bone health - as well as bone density screenings, to assess and manage the health of your bones.
Regular Health Check-ups
It’s essential to maintain regular check-ups with your healthcare provider during and post-menopause. These visits can help to monitor your overall health, discuss any changes in symptoms - both physical and mental - and adjust any treatment plans as needed.
Treatment recommendations should be personalised to each individual, based on their specific symptoms, medical history, and current health. Every woman’s experience of menopause is unique, and having open and honest conversations can help healthcare professionals to determine the most appropriate, and beneficial, treatment options for you.
For more support, check out these resources that are free for everyone to access:
- Visit the NHS website for information, plus guidance on things you can do in menopause to help find relief from symptoms, and ways you can access support
- Menopause Support is a not for profit community interest company, and the home of the #MakeMenopauseMatter campaign, with lots of useful information and tips on navigating this journey
- The Menopause Charity provide trusted information resources, approved by their Clinical Advisory Panel
- Menopause and Me is a handy hub of information, including podcasts with expert insights on menopause-related topics, symptom checklists, and a glossary which can help you understand new and unfamiliar medical jargon
- Providing inclusive and accessible support, the Balance App is a space to learn, track symptoms, and connect with others going through similar experiences
- Visit healthtalk.org to hear personal stories, symptoms, and concerns from other menopausal women, and the support networks that they've found useful