Living with Menopause - What are your options?
Menopause, although a natural biological process, is one that that many women find difficult to cope with.
The physical and emotional symptoms of menopause may range anywhere from being mildly inconvenient to extremely debilitating. Lifestyle, physical and mental wellbeing can be quite seriously disrupted as a result. The positive news is that there are many effective treatments available, from hormone therapy to lifestyle adjustments and behavioural techniques that allow women the chance to take more control over the changes that are happening to them.
When it begins
Perimenopause is the period of transition before actual menopause occurs and it typically happens when a woman is between 40 and 50 years old. Lasting on average for four years. If you’re over 50, after one year without periods, you are considered to have gone through menopause. Perimenopause is the time when most women start to notice some of the symptoms associated with the cessation of periods. These include:
- Irregular periods
- Vaginal dryness
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Mood changes
- Weight gain and slowed metabolism
- Thinning hair and dry skin
It is the process of the slowing down in the production of oestrogen in women’s bodies that causes the symptoms of menopause and for women suffering from severe symptoms that are affecting their ability to live their normal everyday lives, seeking to address this hormonal imbalance can be an effective course of action. Even once menopause is considered to have been reached, the symptoms can continue for months or even years afterwards.
HRT – Hormone Replacement Therapy
HRT – hormone replacement therapy - is the main treatment for menopause symptoms, although there are other treatments also available. It is essentially synthetic hormones that replace the oestrogen which your body begins to lack during menopause. It can be taken in many forms including tablets, skins patches, gels and creams and your GP will discuss with you which type of therapy is suitable for you according to your general health and medical background. However, HRT is not suitable for everyone, and there are some health risks associated with it, so it is important to make informed decisions. It is also helpful to know that there are other alternatives to HRT available which can also be very effective.
BHRT – Bioidentical hormone replacement therapy
Where HRT is a synthetic hormone therapy, BHRT is a therapy which is a natural, plant-derived alternative and it is growing in popularity. The chemical structures of bioidenticals are literally ‘identical’ to our own hormones (hence the name), and as a result, their action is gentler on our bodies. Synthetic hormones used in HRT mimic human hormones but are not chemically identical – and it is that fact which can lead to some women suffering from unwanted HRT side-effects.
BHRT treatment is typically available through private clinics, but there are some therapies that are also available on the NHS through a GP. If you feel anxious or concerned about the health risks associated with HRT, then BHRT is an alternative worth investigating. However, it is important to know that currently bioidenticals are not regulated, and there is no evidence to suggested they are safer than taking HRT. The forms of BHRT are no different to HRT – they are available as tablets, gel, pessaries and creams.
Alternative therapies for the treatment of menopause symptoms are widely sold in health food shops, including herbal remedies such as evening primrose oil, sage, angelica, ginseng and St John's Wort, which are marketed to help with the relief of symptoms including hot flashes, fatigue, insomnia and mood swings. There is some evidence to suggest that such therapies offer some relief, and many women firmly endorse their effectiveness, but in general, this effectiveness is not supported by scientific evidence.
If the minefield of ‘drug’ alternatives is proving confusing and concerning then the place to start is definitely with making some lifestyle changes to help lessen the severity of any symptoms.
- Regular exercise is a great way to boost mood and weight-bearing exercises help to keep bones strong. Regular activity can also reduce hot flashes and improve sleep.
- A healthy diet will also help keep your bones and body healthy, and it will help to ensure that you don’t put on weight.
- Caffeine, alcohol and spicy food are all known to trigger hot flashes so reducing your intake may provide some relief
- Smoking, aside from the risks of heart disease, stroke and cancer, also affects menopause hormones. Not only can it cause early menopause, but it can also increase the severity of menopause symptoms. Time to seriously consider quitting.
- Reducing stress helps with mood swings. Rest coupled with regular exercise, including activities such as yoga and tai chi will all help you to relax.
- Sleep quality can be boosted by ensuring you stay cool at night. Wearing loose clothing and ensuring that your bedroom is cool and well-ventilated will help with managing night sweats and hot flashes
MBSR OR CBT – It is all about the mind
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) or Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) are therapies which can help with managing and reducing stress and can help you to deal with menopause symptoms and problems more calmly and practically. Techniques which can help you to ‘ride out’ the physical and mental symptoms of menopause can pay great dividends.