Our mothers rarely talked about it. Their mothers didn’t talk about it. But in recent years we’ve finally started to open up the conversation about a natural bodily change that affects half of the global population – menopause.
Today’s younger women have changed much of the conversation around periods. And older women, many entering mid-life, are following their lead and doing the same for menopause.
But even so, there are several untold truths about what actually happens during menopause and perimenopause (the transitional time leading up to the big M).
Often women are left completely in the dark about the changes they’re experiencing. Sometimes they are given incorrect diagnoses by doctors who should know better and to whom they’ve turned for treatment and answers around persistent health problems.
I know this latter issue because it happened to me.
In a journey that finally led me to identify menopause as the real issue behind some of the debilitating pain I was experiencing, I was given steroid shots, had hand surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome (didn’t help), and received countless belittling looks from doctors who dismissed me as a hypochondriac.
I visited haematologists, gynaecologists, rheumatologists and my G.P. And not even the female doctors who examined me thought to advise having my hormone levels checked. Instead, I received a range of diagnoses from “nothing is wrong with you,” to Lupus and “maybe cancer”.
Finally, after experimenting with dietary restrictions, therapy and coaching, and undertaking as much research as I could, I had my hormone levels checked and everything became clear.
It was a long and unhappy quest for me to get to where I am, which is understanding, managing and loving my body right now.
And because I don’t want other women to have to go through what I went through, here is some clarity around a few untold truths about menopause.
Untold menopause truth #1: You are not alone
As the former American First Lady Michelle Obama noted, “Half of us [in the population] are going through this but we’re living like it’s not happening”.
More than that, many of us feel we have to live like we are going through these sometimes mystifying, sometimes difficult and distressing, symptoms alone.
But you’re not alone.
So, if you’re middle-aged, reach out to other middle-aged women within your social circle to share your story and ask them if they’re also managing menopause symptoms. They’ll likely be both relieved and pleased to have someone to talk to about what they’re experiencing.
If you don’t have anyone close to you with who you feel comfortable chatting about menopause, there are several online forums and even Facebook groups that you could link up with. Just don’t feel like you need to struggle alone or have all the answers when you start to feel something is changing within your body.
Untold menopause truth #2: It’s all about the hormones, honey
Perimenopause, sometimes called the menopausal transition, is a process wherein your body starts to make a natural transition towards menopause. During this period, your body’s level of estrogen starts to rise and fall a little erratically.
Most of us are aware that estrogen is the main female hormone but, based on the information we’ve received about the hormone, believe it is associated with female pregnancy only. But that’s not true.
Estrogen has a major role to play in regulating moods and controlling emotions, weight management, bone strength, and both protecting nerves from damage and stimulating their growth.
When a person is experiencing low levels of estrogen they might experience:
- Low back pain
- Pain in joints
- Weak muscles
- Mental confusion
- Rapid heartbeat
- Weight gain
- Thinning hair
- Night sweats
- Disturbed sleep
- Hot flashes
- Vaginal dryness
- Loss of libido
- Mood swings
If you begin to experience any of these symptoms, get your hormone levels checked. It is possible to boost estrogen levels through hormone replacement therapies, phytoestrogen-rich foods, and other methods.
Untold menopause truth #3: Menopause doesn’t happen suddenly
Menopause is a process; not a moment in time. A woman’s levels of progesterone, as well as estrogen, can start to decline as early as their 30s. Perimenopause begins and periods may start to become irregular.
This process towards menopause itself can last anywhere from 7 to 14 years. It’s a different experience for all women but there are some common factors. These include those noted above as well as other elements like your changing body shape, or a decrease in energy levels and physical ability.
Menopause itself is said to begin 12 months after a woman’s last period. Though this often occurs in the early 50s, it is not unknown for women to enter menopause at a much younger age. Often, this is the reason many women suffer debilitating menopausal symptoms in silence; The accepted narrative is that menopause doesn’t happen until age 50, so whatever changes they’re going through must be down to some other issue – or just their imagination.
Also, if a woman has surgery to remove their ovaries, this will immediately bring on menopause.
It’s important to understand that there is no time limit on menopause. Some women may experience menopausal symptoms for six months, others for 2 years or more.
Many of those symptoms will be the same as those experienced in perimenopause. How you know you’re in menopause, however, is, as noted above, down to the fact that you haven’t had a period in 12 months or more.
Not everyone who goes through menopause will find it a challenging experience. Some women find that they have very few symptoms and that the freedom from pregnancy actually increases their libido. And, as a natural occurrence for women, it is certainly not to be feared.
All that said, according to a Female Founders Fund survey from 2020, more than three-quarters (78%) of women surveyed said menopause had interfered with their lives and nearly two-thirds (64%) felt unprepared for menopause.
And therein lies the crux of the matter – preparation.
We prepare our young daughters for what’s to come when they hit puberty and start menstruating. We prepare ourselves for childbirth if we fall pregnant. Menopause is yet another critical step in the life of being a woman – So, why not prepare ourselves and the rest of the world – men and women – for what it can involve? We’ll be doing everyone a favour if we do.
Photo: Mikhail Nilov