We’ve all heard the horror stories, but preparing for the changes ahead can change everything. Time to arm up, says Anna Blewett
It’s one of the quirks of modern life that most of us have given more thought to preparations for a zombie apocalypse than our own menopause. OK, out-manoeuvring hot flushes and raging insomnia may not have the makings of great dinner party banter, but it has the excellent advantage of being rooted in reality. Women in the UK enter the menopause at an average age of 51, around 80 percent of us will experience symptoms, and according to new research 23 percent of women say it lessens their enjoyment of life. So buckle up; it’s time to get strategising for survival.
Collect Wifi passwords
If you’ve ever taken teenagers to visit friends or family you’ll know how brazen they are about asking for your host’s wifi password. And they’re on to something; health promotion specialist Norma Goldman suggests your first survival must-have is to be found online. “The obvious one is information, which of course has to be impartial, practical and up to date,” she advises. “Most women will go through the peri-menopause, the phase before the menopause, with irregular periods and some of the symptoms associated with menopause (which officially begins after 12 consecutive months without a period).
“You need to know what menopause symptoms feel like,” continues Norma. “Some aren’t so obvious, and can be caused by separate conditions, such as a thyroid problem.” In 1999 Norma founded Menopause Exchange (menopause-exchange.co.uk), a hub for impartial expert information. Online forums, blogs and social media threads are fantastic for reminding you you’re not in this alone; blogger Lynette Sheppard menopausegoddessblog.com has plenty of down-to-earth advice for ‘when hormones go wacko’.
Load up on herbal supplements
While HRT (hormone replacement therapy) brings millions of women relief from acute menopausal symptoms, the associated health risks can make plant-based alternatives a more appealing starting point. For medical herbalist Katie Pande, senior herbal advisor to Pukka Herbs pukkaherbs.com, women looking for plant-based actives to help mitigate menopause symptoms represents 70 percent of her caseload.
“There are two classes of herbs used during menopause,” she starts. “Firstly herbs such as black cohosh, sage, vitex agnus castus and shatavari that have a specific effect on oestrogen and progesterone, so help the body balance those hormones. The way they work is helping the body adapt to that dramatic drop in oestrogen. There are several ways they do that: by having a slightly oestrogenic effect, so giving the body more time to adapt to lower levels, and helping the body get rid of excess levels of hormones that have built up. It’s a similar approach to HRT but not quite as extreme.
“Where herbs really come in is supporting the adrenal glands, so the stress response,” continues Katie. “That’s probably one of the most important factors because ironically the biggest problem isn’t the symptoms itself but the situation it creates. The symptoms you commonly see – hot flushes, insomnia, vaginal dryness – create stress and anxiety. Adaptogens such as the ayurvedic ashwagandha work by essentially balancing the stress response; they support the adrenal glands to build energy levels and balance adrenaline and cortisol so in a symptomatic situation you don’t feel as panicked or stressed about it.”
Learn to love lube
If you’re enjoying a satisfying sex life (and we know how important love-making is to both physical and emotional wellbeing) you’ll be more than a little dismayed at the deeply un-sexy prospect of vaginal dryness. Dropping oestrogen levels can play havoc with your vagina’s natural lubrication (around 60 percent of women experience dryness), creating physical discomfort and potential difficulty with partners who may conflate lack of moisture with low arousal. “As you go though the menopause you can get quite dry during intercourse,” says Kathy Abernethy, chair of the British Menopause Society and author of Menopause: The One-Stop Guide (£9.99, Profile) which is out this month. “But simple things like lubricants can help. There are a lot of products available but once you discount anything chemical-based, or containing parabens or hormones, there aren’t quite so many options.”
Water-based lubricants are essential when using condoms (and for daily moisturising see panel) but if you do not rely on barrier contraceptives you can’t go far wrong with coconut oil. Safe, cheap and easily available, it’ll also do wonders for your ‘tropical goddess’ fantasy.
Reach for the vitamin D tablets
We all know catching a few rays in summer can magically generate the vitamin D our bodies need to regulate calcium in our bones and teeth. But the common deficiency our population faces between October and March becomes a bit more serious as we age. “We should be thinking about our bones way before the menopause,” advises Kathy, “but it is a key time to reassess your calcium intake and vitamin D particularly. In fact, thanks to the absence of oestrogen, your bone density could deplete by up to a fifth in the years after you pass the menopause marker.” Kathy recommends a balanced diet low in caffeine and fizzy drinks. What’s more, that daily 10mcg supplement the NHS recommends for all adults during autumn and winter may become more important. “If you go through early menopause really consider whether you need medical help for your bones,” suggests Kathy. “A family history of fractures is a warning sign, as is any minor break in your 30s or 40s.”
Live your best life
By the time we’re approaching menopause most of us will be on familiar terms with our own diet and lifestyle demons. Whether it’s over-indulging your passion for full-bodied French reds, scrolling through Facebook into the wee small hours, or jumping in the car for each and every local errand (or all of the above), those less-thanhealthy habits may start to bite back. “All the general lifestyle measures apply particularly at menopause,” says Kathy. “So things you might have got away with when you were younger really become important coming to mid-life. Changing your health around the time of your 40s and 50s will really bear fruit into your 60s, 70s and beyond. You’re making an investment for your future health.” Getting signs of the peri-menopause? It’s time for a detox. “Hormones are processed in your liver,” starts Katie. “That’s where they get metabolised and where they can build up.” Katie recommends upping leafy green vegetables high in anti inflammatories and antioxidants, and cutting back on toxins such as alcohol. “It’s about taking the strain off your liver which will also be bursting at the seams with activity!”
“Don’t be negative about it,” says Kathy. “The menopause doesn’t have to be a negative experience. For many women it’s a time when they become free form contraceptives and they’re free from periods. They’re beginning to be independent because of the time of life they’re at, so menopause can be a really positive step for women.”
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