Did you know when most people talk about menopause symptoms, they really mean perimenopause symptoms? Perimenopause feels like a word in disguise, hiding in the shadows, waiting patiently for its day in the spotlight, when the world wakes up to its masquerading Big Sister menopause.
As if life wasn’t complicated enough! So what do perimenopause and menopause actually mean?
Menopause – the great pretender!
Menopause actually means one year after our last period – that precise point in time. Perimenopause is the period leading up to menopause. The only real so-called ‘symptom’ of menopause is that we have already been a whole year without a menstrual bleed! Which usually happens around the age of 51.
The ‘menopause’ symptoms we experience before that specific point in time are technically perimenopause symptoms. We are most likely perimenopausal rather than menopausal. After menopause (when we’ve been without a period for a full year) we can be said to be post-menopausal.
But try telling the world at large! For many women, by the time they actually reach menopause, those pesky ‘menopause’ symptoms, if you’re lucky, may already be consigned to history. And you may be happily skipping off into a lovely post-menopausal, monthly bleed and PMT free life of liberty!
Symptoms of perimenopause (otherwise known as menopause symptoms)
So if you’re in perimenopause, what can you expect? Firstly, you may not even notice. I didn’t. It was a hormone test at 41 that told me I already had the hormone profile of a post-menopausal woman! That was a bit of a shock!
You may experience symptoms for a few months, several years, or no time at all! Here are the main ones to look out for. These are usually attributed to menopause but are actually part of perimenopause and therefore may start much earlier than you expect.
- Irregular periods
- Hot flushes/flashes
- Decreased libido
- Vaginal dryness
- Breast tenderness
- Mood swings
- Brain fog
- Difficulty sleeping
- Achy joints
- Dry skin
- Urine leakage
Time to talk
So we need to re-evaluate when symptoms are likely to start. Perimenopause symptoms can begin several years before periods stop completely. Menopause symptoms can continue long after periods stop. But most women are still surprised when they start experiencing ‘menopause’ symptoms much before the age of 50. And even around 50, for many women, it still comes as a shock.
That’s because menopause is still taboo. Which it shouldn’t be. And it shouldn’t be surprising that women in their early to mid 40s are already experiencing symptoms of ‘the change’. It’s just perimenopause, not the Big Sister.
It’s about time we talked more about what happens to women in midlife. If we’re lucky enough to live past 50, menopause happens to all women. It’s kind of like adolescence in reverse. And like many changes in life, embracing them rather than fighting, is a healthier way to go. How we approach perimenopause and menopause can significantly impact our experience of this stage in our lives.
A natural part of life
Perimenopause and menopause are completely natural. While we may go through a period of discomfort, neither should be considered illness. I think there is a real danger of over-medicalizing menopause, which is a totally natural time of transformation that happens to all women. And just because our society is fixated on youth doesn’t mean we have to accept the social norms relating to older women. Menopause doesn’t have to be a time of loss but a chance to embark on an exciting, less restricted and newly empowered second half.
For example, women often end up, after menopause, with more testosterone in their bodies, relatively speaking, than at any time since their 20s! I believe that levels the playing field between us and men, and may go some way to explain why there are so many powerful women in midlife and beyond on the world stage. We are no longer slaves to estrogen!
As a friend of mine likes to say, “When we’re done birthing babies, we’re ready to birth solutions”. It also means our sexual desire may be stronger post menopause. So try not to worry too much about any stray hairs on your chin and embrace the often positive impact of these hormonal changes.
If you go to the doctor complaining of menopause symptoms and have a blood test which confirms you are in perimenopause, you may be offered HRT. But HRT remains contentious for many and there are lots of natural ways to try to manage symptoms before resorting to HRT. And it’s not an illness, so why not try other ways to help first?
What you put in place now will also help set you up for good general health in the long term.
1. Balance your blood sugar and sort out your diet
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. Now is the perfect time to make your diet healthier overall and include lots of fresh vegetables. 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.
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. Here’s a comprehensive list of foodstuffs that can help. Daily ground flaxseeds on my breakfast cereal as well as organic soya milk instead of dairy have massively helped me. 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.
2. Get plenty of exercise
As we age our metabolism slows down. It’s easy to blame menopause for middle-age spread but the natural ageing process is just as responsible. As estrogen leaves our body we need to work harder to maintain bone health. Regular exercise, both cardio and weight bearing will help in the long term as well as assisting through perimenopause.
Yoga is wonderful for maintaining strong bones and flexibility. It may even help reduce hot flushes/flashes. If you’re overweight you’re much more likely to suffer from hot flushes. The better you feel about yourself and your general health, the more likely you are to have a positive experience of the change. Don’t forget your Kegel exercises too to sort out any urinary leakage issues!
3. Try natural remedies
Herbs such as black cohosh, sage and red clover can all help with symptoms particularly hot flushes. Take a fish oil supplement to help protect your bones. Sea buckthorn oil, taken as a supplement can help with vaginal dryness. Coconut oil can be eaten, used as a personal lubricant, cleanser and moisturizer.
The YES organic vaginal lubricant range is excellent and available on prescription in the UK. Here’s some advice on how to stay sexy through menopause and beyond. Pjur lubricant is my current favorite. It’s not the most natural but it’s very good! A regular mindfulness or general meditation practice can really help ease mood swings and anxiety.
Finally, when it comes to perimenopause, don’t expect the worst but also don’t suffer in silence. Get the help you need. If your symptoms are bad and natural remedies don’t work, there is also HRT.
Having gone through menopause at 41, I was advised to go on HRT to protect my bones and heart until I reached normal menopause age, when I chose to come off HRT. I chose the body-identical yam-based HRT rather than pregnant mare’s urine. These are also available on prescription in the UK though many doctors don’t seem to know this.
Since turning 51, I have managed any midlife hormonal challenges with a combination of: no caffeine; natural phytoestogens every day in the form of soya (instead of dairy) milk, ground flax seeds (on my muesli) and chickpeas; limited sugar and processed foods; a relatively healthy diet with lots of vegetables; limiting (often unsuccessfully!) alcohol; meditation when I remember; running at least 3 times a week; yoga/stretching every day.
One natural remedy in isolation may not do much for you – but a package can really work.
You’ll find lots more information in our menopause resource section.
The real trick is to embrace perimenopause as a natural process that actually empowers you. We’ve been working with our wombs all our lives. Midlife is not the time to start fighting them and the essence of our feminine power.
At Magnificent Midlife we’re challenging stereotypes and changing perceptions. We think of midlife and menopause as a time of re-evaluation and regeneration as we embark on the exciting second half of our lives. I hope you agree.
If you’d like to make your midlife and beyond magnificent, why not join our Members Club – just click the image below for details!