How To Thrive Through Menopause

Why is menopause still taboo? It happens to all women and is just another stage in life’s rich pattern. But it’s not something most of us feel comfortable talking about, even with friends. It seldom gets a mention in the media and when it does, is it ever positive?

And doctors often automatically hand out pills for it as though it is an illness rather than a natural stage in life. Imagine doctors giving out pills for puberty without considering other ways to help first!

If it’s so natural, then we need to talk about it and make sure we know how to thrive through menopause.

A new stage of life

The very wise Dr Marilyn Glenville, the UK’s leading nutritionist specialising in women’s health, has this to say:

“The menopause is not an illness. If you subscribe to the standpoint currently held by the conventional medical profession, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was. Women in many other cultures do not experience the menopause as a crisis demanding medical intervention.

Many of them simply do not suffer the physical and emotional symptoms that women in the West are programmed to accept as inevitable. In our society the focus of the menopause is one of loss.

Women are programmed to dwell on loss – the loss of periods, the loss of the ability to create life, the loss of hormones, the problems of the ’empty-nest’ syndrome. In other societies, this time in a woman’s life is seen as one of gain, a time of great wisdom.

A time when the emphasis shifts away from doing the chores, working in the fields, to the role of lawmaker and counselor to younger couples, where maturity and experience make a significant and valuable contribution to the family and society.”

Depends where you live

Menopause is certainly a time of change. But it doesn’t have to be seen only as a time of loss. In Asia, for example, where older people are revered, this period in a woman’s life is often welcomed for the transition away from a mainly nurturing role into one where experience and wisdom are put to good use.

And interestingly Asian women don’t report half as many menopausal symptoms as women in the West nor as much breast cancer! Is that because of different diet, environmental factors, circumstances or mental attitude? Or a combination?

It’s certainly not just genes, on the women’s cancer front at least. When Asian women move to the West, for example, their rate of breast cancer becomes similar to that of women brought up in the West.

Challenging the perceived wisdom

In her book, The Second Half of Your Life, Jill Shaw Ruddock quotes an International Menopause Society study which found that British women suffer the worst menopausal symptoms in the world. Could the prevalence of alcohol in our society be a factor perhaps?

We know for a fact that alcohol effects hormones. Or our love of dairy products that are not yet so popular in the East? Phytoestrogens, found in soya, which is a common foodstuff in Asia, for example, are known to help with menopausal symptoms.

Or are Western menopause symptoms at least partially in the mind? There’s a contentious thought! Perhaps our youth obsessed culture coming back to bite us in the arse? Who knows?

Magnificent Midlife is all about challenging established perceptions of women in midlife and inspiring women to embrace all that life offers, take the lead and do great things. When we surveyed women over forty about what they like most about the age they are, they talked of being more self-confident, calmer, more free, having perspective and wisdom.

At the same time, they hated the idea of  becoming invisible and continued to crave learning more about the world, and finding more purpose and meaning in their lives.

Far-sightedness, thinning hair and lower metabolism are certainly tedious, but those afflict both men and women, so they can’t be blamed on the menopause! Changing how we feel about the menopause might just help us thrive through it.

A new beginning

There’s another reason why menopause can and should be seen as a new beginning. After menopause, you’ll have lost 100% of your progesterone, 99% of your oestrogen and 70% of your testosterone. Do the maths. Which is the dominant hormone in your body? Testosterone.

And that doesn’t just mean whiskers on your chinny chin chin!  You may, in fact, have as much testosterone in your body after menopause, as you had in your twenties. So your sex drive may be raring to go, even if your body’s response is different.

Having more testosterone in your system than other hormones, can also mean you are on a hormonally more level playing-field with men. You may feel less impulse to nurture others, if that has been important before, and more desire to push ahead and conquer the world!

So men may discover more of their emotions as testosterone converts to oestrogen in their bodies as they age, but we may be less encumbered by ours.

Symptoms of menopause

Many women sail through menopause without noticing anything more than the end of their periods. For others, symptoms often attributed to the menopause can include:

  • Hot flushes (flashes)
  • Sweating
  • Irregular periods
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Headaches
  • Aching joints, muscles and feet
  • Breast tenderness
  • Weight gain
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Changes in skin and hair
  • Irritability and forgetfulness
  • Anxiety and feelings of insecurity
  • Diminished sex drive
  • Vaginal dryness

Helping yourself

Doctors often prescribe HRT if you visit complaining of menopause symptoms. If you are well below the average age of menopause (51-52), with bad symptoms, there is a case for taking HRT, because it may help with symptoms and is also thought to protect your bones and heart (particularly useful with early menopause).

If you decide on HRT, ask about body-identical (often also called bio-identical) hormones – or ones that are as ‘natural’ as possible and made from yams. Some HRT comes from horse urine, for example! Do we really want that in our bodies?

HRT carries increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer, which needs to be balanced against the benefits. Body or bio-identical hormones are available from your GP in the UK.  Some private practitioners also promote ‘bespoke’ very expensive bio-identical hormones, but in the UK you can get good enough body-identical HRT on the NHS.

Instead of necessarily depending on HRT or as well as, a good diet, exercise and several natural remedies can all help alleviate some of the symptoms of the menopause.

Start with what and how you eat. As Jackie Lynch writes in her book The Happy Menopause, the most fundamental component of good hormonal balance in midlife and beyond is making sure your blood sugar levels are as stable as they can be.  As we go through the perimenopause years, estrogen decreases.

But it doesn’t go away completely. The ovaries stop producing it, but it’s still made in our adipose tissue and by our adrenal glands. It’s a weaker form of estrogen but still estrogen.

The problem is that if we’re stressed and our bodies go into fight or flight mode, the adrenal glands prioritize production of our stress hormones in favor of estrogen. Then we get into trouble with menopause symptoms.

Stress can come in the form of bog standard emotional stress. Or it can be stress we put on our bodies, making them think they need to go into fight or flight mode by causing our blood sugar levels to be imbalanced. This happens either because we haven’t eaten when we should have, and blood sugar has dropped, or we’ve consumed the wrong thing that makes our blood sugar level spike.

So eating (and drinking) regularly and the right things becomes ever more important. Caffeine, alcohol, sugar and refined foods can all cause our blood sugar to spike and then plummet when their effects wears off.

All kinds of stress are bad. So we need to start with reducing stress and eating/drinking in such a way that our blood sugar levels are balanced. A little and often, and eating protein and complex carbohydrates (such as beans, whole grains, and starchy vegetables), which are high in fiber, with every meal is a good way to go.

Cut out processed food as much as you can. Refined carbohydrates, in particular, are known to mess with our hormones generally, quite apart from the blood sugar spiking effect. The more natural your diet the better.  Increase your intake of calcium, magnesium and vitamin D.

Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, reduce your alcohol, sugar, and caffeine intake, all of which mess with hormones and cause hot flushes, and eat natural phytoestrogens to replace the estrogen your body no longer produces with foodstuffs like flaxseeds, lentils, tofu and soy. The easiest way to take flax seeds, which are not particularly appetizing, is to grind them (and add to other cereals, for example) or soak them over night and drink both the water and the seeds in the morning. Check this video to see how I prepare my flaxseed.

Here’s a comprehensive list of foodstuffs that can help. Eating organic when you can will also help, as you’re cutting out any pesticide or hormonal additions to food that can have an impact on your own hormones.

If hot flushes are an issue, cut down or cut out chocolate, lemon, red wine, caffeine, dried fruit, cheddar cheese and any foods that contain sodium nitrate such as processed meats. (Here’s my definitive guide to How To Deal With Hot Flushes/Flashes and Night Sweats.)

Red clover, which can also be found in health food stores, is also a good source of phytoestrogens and especially good if you sprout it yourself according to the book Grow Your Own HRT. Here’s a fantastic article on our sister site The Mutton Club on Food for Menopause Symptoms.

Black cohosh and sage are both thought to help with hot flushes and night sweats. Black cohosh can be found as a supplement in health food stores.  Also, if you think of hot flushes as power surges, they become a lot more palatable!

Regular exercise is also key to thriving through the menopause. Think several sessions a week and enough to get your heart really going. Mix up aerobic exercise such as running or a vigorous exercise class with yoga and or pilates to stretch out your muscles. Check out these features on running and yoga to help you stay in tip top condition.

Marilyn Glenville’s page on the menopause is a wealth of information and her best selling book Fat Around the Middle has lots of  ideas to also shift middle-age spread that can afflict many of us during menopause!  Of course, eating a healthy, balanced diet and getting plenty of exercise is also going to help you limit extra weight gain! Apple cider vinegar is thought to be good at kick-starting your metabolism and helping to slow down weight gain too.

Your pelvic floor may also need exercise, particularly if you’ve given birth vaginally. Women in menopause and beyond are at increased risk of urinary incontinence, as changes in oestrogen levels can cause thinning of the urethra lining combining with weaker muscles as we age.  This is not, however, an inevitable result of ageing and regular pelvic floor exercises can radically improve muscle strength and even cure urinary incontinence completely. Such exercises have the added bonus of also intensifying orgasms!

Diminished sex drive and vaginal dryness are issues for some women during and after menopause. And can really affect our self esteem. But remember what we said earlier about increased testosterone levels and the impact this can have on your sex drive. By the way, if testosterone is found to be lacking, this can also be prescribed as HRT. Apparently sprouted fenugreek is great for libido according to the Grow Your Own HRT book too.

But there doesn’t have to be a physical reason for diminished sex drive and we need to consider our emotions too. We have lots of great ideas to help in our Sex and the menopause feature so check that out for more tips.

With a proactive approach and maybe also a shift in mental attitude, you have a much better chance of thriving through the menopause.

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