The menopause happens when ovaries either run out of eggs or stop producing eggs, meaning periods come to an end. This affects hormone levels and often leads to a number of symptoms, both physical and mental. Many people will start to notice changes between the ages of 40 and 60, with the average age of menopause in the UK being 51.
The time leading up to the menopause is called the perimenopause and can last up to four years. For the first few years the menstrual cycle will typically become less regular, with some people suffering heavier periods than normal.
Here we will look at the different treatments and symptoms of menopause, what type of professional support can help and the role nutrition plays.
When the ovaries stop producing eggs, they also stop producing oestrogen. This oestrogen reduction is what causes menopause symptoms such as hot flushes and changes in mood.
The perimenopause is the time when the majority of people will start noticing changes. This may include both mental and physical symptoms. Many will experience menopausal symptoms throughout all stages, with some finding it difficult to control the unpleasant side effects.
While some people going through the menopause do not suffer adverse side effects, common symptoms include:
The emotional and physical changes during this time can unfortunately result in a range of sleep disturbances including night sweats, difficulty falling asleep, insomnia and restlessness. Regular sleep disturbances can become debilitating, you may feel irritated and lack concentration.
The menopause is known for causing hot flushes. A sudden sensation of heat in the face and chest can develop and may result in skin redness and perspiration. Usually, hot flushes will only last for a matter of minutes, but the intense heat can cause weakness and nausea.
Night sweats are hot flushes that occur during the night. Symptoms are similar to daytime flushes, although some women can experience excessive perspiration resulting in difficulty sleeping.
An estimated one-third of people going through the menopause will suffer vaginal dryness. Symptoms can include itchiness and discomfort, causing sex to become painful. These symptoms alongside the hormonal changes can lead to a reduced sex drive.
Low mood or anxiety
The combination of hormonal changes and physical symptoms can make those going through the menopause more at risk of developing depression and anxiety. Your GP may recommend cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and/or medication to help with this.
While the symptoms of menopause can start between the ages of 45 and 55, some will experience menopause in their younger years. In addition to the typical menopause symptoms, those who are experiencing early menopause may have to cope with other physical and emotional worries.
If your mother or sister have experienced early menopause, or you have been trying to become pregnant for more than a year, you may have to visit your doctor for diagnosis. Your GP may request blood tests to measure your follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH). This is the hormone that causes your ovaries to produce oestrogen. If this production is slowing down, your levels of FSH will be high and may indicate an early menopause.
Other causes of early menopause include:
- autoimmune disease
- radiotherapy around the pelvic area
- oophorectomy and hysterectomy
- medical conditions, such as Addison’s disease
Treatments for menopause
If your symptoms reach the stage where they are having a detrimental effect on everyday life, there are various treatments that may help. The type of treatment you will be offered by your doctor will depend on your symptoms and medical history, treatments available include:
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT)
There are various types of HRT available, all of which are based around the premise of replacing the missing oestrogen that the ovaries are no longer producing. HRT can effectively prevent hot flushes, night sweats and vaginal symptoms.
Moisturising creams and lubricants can help ease vaginal dryness. These can be purchased from most pharmacies.
Talking therapies and antidepressants
If you are experiencing low mood and/or anxiety, it’s worth visiting your doctor to discuss treatment options. Often talking therapies like CBT and/or antidepressants are recommended.
Complementary therapies for menopause
Some people may want to explore complementary therapies for menopause. While there is no hard evidence that they are an effective treatment for menopause, many complementary therapies can help reduce stress, improve sleep and help people feel better able to cope with symptoms.
Herbal remedies, aromatherapy, reflexology and massage have all been praised as supportive for those going through menopause. If you are considering introducing complementary therapies into your lifestyle, please be sure to consult your GP before making any changes.
Menopause diet (What to eat during the menopause)
There are certain lifestyle changes you can make to ease menopause symptoms such as: frequent exercise, light clothing and a reduced caffeine and spicy food intake to help ease night sweats, and relaxation techniques like yoga to help improve mood fluctuations.
What we eat also has a huge effect on our overall health and is important to keep in mind during the menopause. The changes that happen in the body at this time will result in your body needing certain nutrients more. The following food groups are important to include as part of a balanced diet.
These provide the energy and fuel the body needs to function. These energy levels need to remain high for menopausal people as the hormonal changes can result in feelings of exhaustion. A balanced diet should include whole-grain cereals, wholemeal pasta and starchy vegetables (sweet potato) that are high in fibre and essential vitamins.
When you enter menopause, your body produces less oestrogen. This lack of oestrogen subsequently increases the risk of osteoporosis - a condition where the bones are more prone to breaking due to them thinning and becoming weaker. During the menopause it’s important to keep calcium levels up in order to help protect against the condition.
Not only is calcium vital for bone health, it can help keep blood, muscles and nerves in working order. Good sources include dairy, canned fish, green leafy vegetables and tofu.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Healthy fats can help with symptoms like vaginal dryness and hot flushes. They are also anti-inflammatory and can help reduce the risk of both heart disease and type 2 diabetes. You’ll find omega-3 fatty acids in oily fish, avocados and nuts and seeds.
A chemical called phytoestrogen that has a similar structure to oestrogen. Experts believe the chemical tricks the body into thinking it is producing more oestrogen than it really is.
Phytoestrogens are possibly the most studied food in relation to menopause. They are plant-based chemicals that mimic oestrogen, and they are found in many foods such as soya, lentils, flaxseed, sesame, fennel, beans, chickpeas, and some herbs and spices (sage, cinnamon, etc.).
Vitamin D and calcium are vital for bone health. Vitamin D is especially important during menopause as the body needs it to absorb calcium. Most adults need 600 IU (international units) per day, while those older than 71 need 800 IU per day. During the menopause onset, try and get some safe sun exposure to promote calcium absorption.
How can a nutritionist help?
Consulting a qualified nutritionist can help you who are struggling to cope with menopause symptoms. As well as ensuring you are getting the essential nutrients you need, a nutritionist can help you create a symptom management strategy and balanced diet plan.
The strategy can include recipes, meal plans and motivational advice. Your nutritionist may also suggest a physical activity schedule to complement your diet changes.
The advice suggested by the nutritionist should be both realistic and achievable. These will be discussed with you to ensure you’re happy with the suggestions. Regular meetings are advised in order for the client to stay happy with the strategies.
As we’ve discovered here, during the menopause your body may need help maintaining the necessary levels of the required nutrients. In some cases, a nutritionist may suggest taking dietary supplements. Do make sure to always consult your GP before introducing any supplements to your diet.
Make time to relax and exercise. The menopause can be a rewarding stage of new opportunities and strengths.
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