I got to the age of 50 before the subject of the menopause began to crop up. Then suddenly it was all around me. Girlfriends, cousins, total strangers... all whispering under their breath: "Do you know what to do about my hot flushes?" They couldn't sleep at night, woke frequently bathed in sweat, tossed and turned and prayed for the morning. Their libido went out of the window and during the day they couldn't concentrate. Worst of all, in the middle of a meeting, or standing at the till in Sainsbury's, a rush of intense heat would flood them from head to toe, turning their faces bright red and exploding in droplets all over their forehead.
Embarrassing menopause symptoms
One minute you are wearing a cosy jacket in the depths of winter, the next you are walking in the snow in a t-shirt. The menopause has arrived and you haven't a clue what to do about it.
Our mothers - or at least my mother - never talked about the menopause, so I knew almost nothing about it. I observed that the side effects happened hideously to some people, and others just breezed through it entirely unscathed. So what was the difference? And how would it be for me?
And what exactly is menopause? It happens to all of us women, usually between the ages of 45 and 55 when oestrogen levels decline, our ovaries stop producing eggs and our periods stop. Your official menopause 'start' date is exactly 12 months after your periods stopped. The whole thing can last a couple of years, or, if you are unlucky, continue for a decade.
Not a happy experience
Low oestrogen means low dopamine and serotonin, the happy hormones, so often you may feel low, anxious or depressed. Low oestrogen also means slacker muscles in the throat, so if your partner starts complaining about your snoring, that may well be the reason. Oestrogen regulates magnesium too, which helps the body relax and sleep. Lower levels of magnesium as your oestrogen declines make a good nights sleep harder to come by. Tiredness, thinning hair and aching joints and bones are also all signs of reduced oestrogen. There's not much that's obviously positive about the menopause!
A man's perspective
I met a recently divorced man the other day. He was only dating older women and telling every other single man he came across to do the same. Confused, I asked him why? Younger, not older is the standard dating pattern of middle aged men. He explained that his now ex-wife had been so unpleasant and so bad tempered as a result of her hot flushes and hormonal changes that he had absolutely no intention of repeating the experience. 'Women have one menopause' he said to me. 'Why should I have to have two!'
Menopause experiences vary, and some people have no symptoms at all, and others merely the odd hot flush. The majority of symptoms balance out after about 4 years, but for some people it can take far longer than that for the menopause to pass. Everyone's menopause experience is entirely different. What happened to your mother will not necessarily be your own experience, and there are many things you can do to ease your passage through this time of your life.
- Don't drink alcohol. I know that's a tough one, but would you rather give up a glass of Chardonnay, swap it for sparkling water and sleep through the night undisturbed by hot flushes - or would you rather suffer? It's entirely up to you. But notice the difference. Shortly after that gin and tonic or glass of wine and especially if you have rather more than a single glass, you will notice the heat begin to rise. Experiment. Find what works for you.
- Don't eat curry. You may well not eat curry more than occasionally, but spicy food of any kind also raises the heat levels in your body. Again, notice what happens afterwards - usually a night of hot flushes and broken sleep. Heavy foods late at night won't help either. A light meal without meat in the evenings should get you through the night unscathed.
- Don't wear synthetic clothes. Notice how your menopausal symptoms change according to what you wear. Synthetic fabrics seem to trigger those hot flushes (hot flashes for our American readers) whereas 100% cotton, linen or silk do not.
- Don't smoke. Cigarettes trigger hot flushes. Cut them down or give up entirely and you will reduce your symptoms.
Menopause Dos: How to reduce menopausal symptoms
- Firstly, clean up your liver. During the menopause, your body is effectively in hormonal crisis, so you need your liver to work as well and efficiently as possible. Read our earlier detox posts and follow the liver cleanse instructions. Your liver is a waste disposal factory of incredible efficiency. Get it working properly and your symptoms will regularise.
- Up your Vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is actually not a vitamin at all, but a master hormone that regulates many of the systems of your body. Many people are deficient or low in Vitamin D, so supplement with liquid D2 and get your levels up. I use a liposomal spray daily, under my tongue and keep my own levels at around 80. Research shows that the lower your Vitamin D levels, the more likely you are to suffer from menopausal symptoms. Check with your doctor and get a blood test to identify your levels. And be guided by his or her advice, because overly high levels can cause as many problems as deficiency.
- Sort your sleep. Make sure it's not just your hormonal shifts that are keeping you awake at night. Read our 'Sleep' posts and make sure you are optimising your ability to sleep normally. Take additional magnesium every night before you go to bed to help your body relax.
- Lose weight if you can. You may find you put on additional pounds and struggle to lose them with all the hormonal fluctuations going on. Your body will try to hold on to as much oestrogen producing fat as possible as your customary oestrogen levels wane. Testosterone levels drop during menopause too, which slows down your metabolic rate. Eating the same amount as usual will increase your weight so cut your processed food consumption. If you are having a particularly bad time with your menopause, the stress of the situation will raise your cortisol levels too, and increase fat around your stomach.
- Experiment with essential oils. Clary sage oil is frequently flagged as the most effective of the essential oils for balancing hormones. It reduces anxiety and lessens hot flushes/flashes. Roman chamomile oil reduces stress, peppermint oil can help cool the body from hot flushes, and thyme oil and basil oil help to naturally balance hormones. Try rubbing basil oil across the back of your neck to calm hot flushes. A research study on citrus oil in 2014 found that postmenopausal women who inhaled it regularly experienced fewer physical symptoms and an increase in sexual desire.In addition to a decrease in systolic blood pressure, they also experienced an improved pulse rate and estrogen concentrations. Citrus also has anti-inflammatory properties so helps with those joint aches and pains that are often a menopause side effect.
- Try herbal medicine. Consult a medical herbalist or naturopath for a personalized prescription tailored to your specific symptoms. Herbs and natural plant medicine shown to help with menopausal symptoms include red clover, maca, evening primrose oil, liquorice root, wild yams, red raspberry leaves and sarsaparilla. Chasteberry has been clinically proven to regulate hormones and lessen hot flushes. Black cohosh stops night sweats and hot flushes and improves sleep. Proper dosages and combinations are important here, so please don't just self prescribe.
- Give Magnopulse a go. This is a miraculous invention that in my experience works for around 85% of people. It is a small magnet that you clip to the front of your underwear that somehow balances out your hormones and stops those hot flushes in their tracks. For some people the effects are instantaneous, for others it takes a week or two and for some people it doesn't work at all. But as a low cost remedy it is definitely worth a try.
- Use CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) techniques to help ward off the mental side effects, reducing the anxiety and helplessness that are associated with menopause. CBT helps you change the messaging in your mind, replacing negative thoughts like: 'I can't bear this any more' with more positive ones: 'I know this will pass'. A CBT trial at King’s College, London in 2013 found that four sessions were enough to significantly reduce the number and severity of hot flushes.
- Up your exercise. Exercise really does make a difference. Endorphins released during exercise ease anxiety and depression and those low moods frequently associated with menopause. Research has shown that women who exercise have fewer and milder flushes, night sweats and sleep disturbances. A study published by the University of Applied Sciences in Tampere, Finland in 2017 found that women who did 2½ hours of fast walking or 1¼ hours jogging or running a week, plus strength or balance training, such as yoga, twice a week, were less likely to report anxiety, depression, memory and concentration problems and hot flushes.
Last but not least - a more natural alternative to HRT
This exists, and it's called bioidentical hormone replacement. Your doctor may well offer you HRT (hormone replacement therapy) to calm your symptoms, using artificially produced hormones to reduce your symptoms. Be careful here and don't blindly start taking them without researching a good deal on the internet first. The pros and cons are clearly out there, and the decision is entirely up to you, but be informed before you make it.
I would suggest you also look into bio-identical hormones if this you are considering HRT. They are called 'bio-identical' because the hormones used are biochemically identical to those produced by your body. Pharmaceutical companies producing chemical HRT alter the molecules found in nature to enable them to take out a patent and start manufacturing. Taking a chemical product may sometimes trigger side effects as the body fails to recognise the synthetic replacement and registers it as 'foreign'.
Bio-identical hormone therapy is, however, a more costly route. While the NHS will prescribe synthetic HRT, they will not pay for bio-identical hormones. We don't have many experts in the U.K. America is light years ahead of us as usual. I would suggest an initial consultation with a specialist at the Marion Gluck clinic in London, who will take your bloods and run a variety of tests to test the current ebb and flow of your hormones. They have their own compounding pharmacy that will put together specific hormone combinations and doses for your individual issues. This is not a cheap option, and I would always counsel trying the natural plant based remedies first.
Please do try the suggestions in this blog. One or several of them will definitely work for you. It's just a question of experimenting until you find your own personal solution and move through your menopause with minimal discomfort. Let me know how you get on!