When you’re a woman in her mid-fifties like me, you start to view all your medical symptoms with suspicion and you constantly ask yourself whether this is start of the menopause? But what are the first signs of menopause?
Menopause is often cryptically referred to as “the change of life.” But as lovely as this sounds, it doesn’t tell anyone a whole lot about menopause, nor what to expect.
Menopause is something every woman with all her reproductive organs eventually experiences – a natural part of the biological process. It is not a disease or illness, although some menopause side effects can be very unpleasant indeed.
Some doctors claim that menopause is a process that can start with a woman in her 30s and last as late as her 60s.
But menopause occurs in most women between the ages of 45 and 55 and is officially defined as the full stopping of menstrual periods for at least 12 months in a row.
The first signs of menopause can differ from woman to woman and the wide variety of symptoms you may experience in the time leading up to the stopping of your periods is referred to as perimenopause.
One of the most obvious first signs of menopause is irregular, unpredictable periods. Whereas once your periods turned up 28 days on the dot, now some months you are late or perhaps miss a period altogether.
Menstrual periods can suddenly vary between gradually getting lighter, then heavier, and then lighter again.
You are considered to be menopausal when you have not had a full period for 12 months.
A menopausal woman does not ovulate and cannot get pregnant. But women in perimenopause should still be cautious.
Pregnancy in a woman who hasn’t completed menopause can still happen, especially if it’s only been a few months since her periods stopped.
I had my children naturally at 43 and 45, although I was showing no signs of being perimenopausal back then.
Remember, full menopause doesn’t occur until a woman’s menstrual periods have stopped for at least 12 months.
Menopause is caused by a woman’s estrogen levels decreasing. So a woman in menopause doesn’t produce enough estrogen to keep the vagina and urethra well lubricated.
This causes the vagina and urethra to become less elastic and drier, causing those areas to become itchier and more at risk for infections.
Sex can also be more uncomfortable for women in menopause.
An excellent book on the subject is Jane Lewis’ “Me & My Menopausal Vagina” which I cannot recommend highly enough.
The drops in estrogen levels during menopause can also cause what’s called hot flashes. Hot flashes are often the butt of jokes but can be quite bad for some women experiencing menopause.
Hot flashes can last at least 30 seconds to up to several minutes.
They can happen at any time during day or night and are characterized by a flushed face and red blotches on chest, neck and arms.
Some women find that they are actually bathed in sweat.
I have experienced a few of these now (I’m 55) and my experience is of an intense heat that crawls across your body out of the blue.
I strongly suspect that coffee is a trigger of hot flashes for me.
It’s common for menopausal women to gain stubborn weight around the middle which is very difficult to lose.
You can find advice on dealing with this, as well as other hormonal symptoms in Nicki Williams’ excellent book “It’s Not You It’s Your Hormones“?
You may find that you need to urinate more often which is very annoying at night. You may experience an increase in incontinence and more frequent urinary tract infections – in which case a supplement called D-Mannose may help.
Premenstrual Syndrome symptoms may get stronger due to the hormonal imbalance you are experiencing. Mood swings, bloating, lethargy, headaches and irritability may make your monthly period even more of a trial – when it does turn up!
Sage tablets may help to alleviate painful periods as well as those annoying night sweats.
You should, of course, be checking your breasts regularly for any changes but you may find that the changing levels of hormones cause breast tenderness. This should abate once your periods stop but any change in the condition of your breasts should be checked by your doctor.
The loss of oestrogen and testosterone in a woman’s body can affect her sex drive. Vaginal dryness may make sex uncomfortable. There are some excellent vaginal moisturisers and lubricants on the market. I highly recommend Yes Oil Based Lubricant.
There can be a number of things that interfere with sleeping, including night sweats and frequent urination. Many women have difficulty in getting to sleep in the first place or will wake often in the night. A gentle sleep supplement may help.
Adult acne can get worse during menopause. You’ll find excellent advice from skincare expert Caroline Hirons on her website and look out for her skincare bible – Skincare: The Ultimate No-Nonsense Guide.
With decreased estrogen levels in menopause, the small amounts of testosterone every woman produces can take over, leading to coarse hair on the face, chest and stomach.
I have a great little ‘fuzz remover‘ which can be carried in your purse to quickly whisk away stray facial hairs.
It’s not only the vagina that may become drier. All the mucus membranes may be affected. If you have worn contact lenses comfortably for years, you may find them more irritating and find yourself reaching for the comfort drops more regularly.
I use Hydrosan Extra eye drops which are contact lens compatible and will also apply Blink Comfort Drops when I’m out and about.
I have been taking a great supplement for both dry eyes and dry vagina – Seabuckthorn Oil capsules. I have noticed an improvement but you may need to persist with these for a month or two.
Then there’s a good probiotic guaranteed to actually reach the vagina – Optibac For Women.
Menopause is a natural life transition. But sometimes complications in the process of menopause occur.
For example, if a woman knows for sure she’s in menopause (that is she hasn’t had a period for at least 12 months in a row), and she’s bleeding from her vagina, she should go see a doctor.
If a woman thinks she’s experiencing the first signs of menopause but isn’t sure, she can always go to a doctor. Depending on the situation, a doctor might take a blood test to determine menopause.
In this case, a blood sample is usually tested for the level of estrogen and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH).
During menopause FSH levels increase as estrogen levels decrease. So higher levels of FSH and lower levels of estrogen will show a woman has gone into menopause.
Be prepared, however, for your FSH levels to vary – it may take several blood tests around 6 months apart to ensure that you are fully menopausal.
Mine, for example, have been normal, menopausal and normal! For this reason, you should still keep using contraception.
Although a 50+ baby would be unusual, according to my GP it certainly isn’t impossible. Since I had Ieuan at 45 I’m not taking any chances!
The perimenopause and menopause can be a tricky time for many women and I would recommend talking to your GP and also friends and family who have gone or are going through it.
Sharing experiences and what works in terms of HRT or alternative therapies may help you cope better with any health-related challenges.