If you have ever turned to google for advice or information on the menopause you will know there are copious amounts of claims and myths out there. Misleading information online can cause harm to us and our bodies and distract us from scientific evidence. In this article we’re going to break down what the menopause is, common symptoms and menopause myths!
So, what actually is menopause?
Menopause is the period in a woman’s life when her menstrual cycle stops. Stopping of the menstrual cycle is caused by a change in the female hormones oestrogen and progesterone and means she will no longer have a period. Having no period means that after menopause, a woman is no longer fertile and cannot conceive. It happens at different ages and stages for different women but the average age of menopause in the UK is 51 and the average range is between 45 and 55 years. Although a natural part of a woman’s life, menopause also comes with some symptoms for many women. This is because our bodies adapt to the new changes of our reproductive system, just like it did during puberty when our cycles began. A woman is termed in menopause 12 months after amenorrhea, which means after 12 months of no periods, and is termed postmenopausal from menopause to the end of life.
Perimenopause terms the period ‘around menopause’, often referred to as the menopause transition which begins the change. Perimenopause gives women and their doctors predecessors for menopause and helps women manage and understand their symptoms. For example, perimenopause often begins with irregular or missed periods and 3 months of missed periods or long cycle lengths can indicate the beginning of menopause.
Some common symptoms of menopause
Symptoms usually begin with perimenopause and can last for four to five years after menopause, although every woman is different. This means women could have symptoms months or years before their period actually stops. If menopause is induced by chemotherapy, surgery or radiation for example, it progresses more abruptly, and symptoms are often worse. 8 out of 10 women experience symptoms alongside the stopping of their period and it is normal.
These are some common symptoms experienced by women during menopause:
- Vaginal dryness or itchiness
- Mood changes
- Sleep disturbances
- Hot flushes
- Night sweats
- Reduced sex drive
- Reduced control over urination
- Sexual dysfunction
- Heart palpitations
- Stiff and achy joints (increased risk of osteoporosis)
- Frequent UTI’s (urinary tract infections)
Not all women experience symptoms, and not all that do experience all of these. Everyone’s experience is unique and different.
What role does nutrition play?
As we know, nutrition plays an important part in women’s health throughout life. Research has shown that nutrition could alleviate the symptoms that women experience during menopause and can help prepare the body for this change. A varied and balanced diet full of rich nutrient sources is vital for women’s optimal health. Having such a diet helps the body cope with stress and changes, which many women go through. Menopause increases the risk of developing heart disease and so a heart healthy approach to food would be a good idea! This includes:
- Eating plenty of colourful fruit and vegetables
- Reducing saturated fat intake and choose more Omega 3 options, such as oily fish & olive oil.
- Eating plenty of fish, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, pulses throughout the week
- Eating plenty of fibre
- Reducing salt intake to a minimum
No single food will improve symptoms, but some nutrients have been suggested by research to improve particular symptoms or aid the body during these times of change:
- Phytoestrogens found in vegetables, fruit, legumes and soy may help reduce the occurrence of hot flushes-the effects of phytoestrogens may only be apparent 2-3 months after adequate intake and will not alleviate symptoms immediately
- Calcium and vitamin D support bone health, which decreases from age 35 – this can help prevent osteoporosis and joint damage
Alternatively, caffeine and alcohol have been shown to have negative effects on menopause symptoms such as making hot flushes worse. Reduced intake of caffeine and alcohol is suggested throughout menopause to manage symptoms.
Menopause myths that are quite frankly just made up:
- ‘Menopause causes weight gain’ – our bodies change throughout life, but not every menopausal woman puts on weight as everyone’s metabolism responds differently to the change, there is the possibly that menopause could slow your metabolism which could cause you to store more body fat.
- ‘Hormone replacement therapy is dangerous’ – HRT is the main treatment for menopause symptoms and is only recommended to women who are most suitable for this kind of treatment, it is not dangerous, but like all treatments it has its risks, bioidentical ‘natural’ hormones can be dangerous and are not recommended.
- ‘This superfood will cure your menopausal symptoms’ – no single food will alleviate any symptoms, nutrients can help manage symptoms and improve overall health with prolonged and adequate intake, relying on any one food does not promote a healthy body; a balanced diet with various foods is recommended. Try to become sceptical of what you read across the media as there are a lot of superfood claims!
- ‘Women go through menopause when they’re old’ – women can go through menopause at any age after puberty and sexual maturity, if it occurs before the age of 45 it is considered an early menopause and is rare; usually women go through menopause before their senior years and at the end of mid-life
- ‘Menopause causes memory loss’ – menopause does not cause memory loss, which is a natural response to aging in both men and women
- ‘HRT is the only treatment option’ – diet and lifestyle changes can have a huge impact on menopausal symptoms and can improve general wellbeing during a challenging adjustment but HRT is recommended if tolerated.