What you should know about menopause and how to prepare yourself for the life change.
The average age of menopause for women in Australia is 52. While the timing isn't a guarantee, it is a certainty that menopause will happen to all biological women.
Yet, despite being fated to go through this life change, many women still find themselves mystified and confronted by the changes that occur to their bodies, and also well-being, during the process.
We sat down with gynaecologist and obstetrician Dr Gino Pecoraro in order to prepare ourselves better for menopause.
What is menopause?
Menopause marks the biological end of a woman's reproductive life - and with it comes a host of physical and mental changes!
Dr Pecoraro says women aren't considered truly menopausal until they haven't had a period for two years. Prior to that, however, women will experience symptoms of perimenopause.
This can include:
- Irregular periods, often heavier and closer together
- Vaginal dryness
- Irritability and mood swings
- Difficulty sleeping
- Hot flushes
- Joint aches and pains
- Changes to skin and hair
- Difficulty concentrating
- Symptoms of anxiety or depression
How to prepare yourself
"Generally speaking we would always say a person who’s in good physical condition is going to handle any change better than one who isn’t," Dr Pecoraro reveals. "So, making sure you have adequate exercise and that you’re not overweight will help protect your bones and your heart and blood vessels against heart attacks and strokes which can increase after you go through menopause."
When it comes to bone health, it's important women get adequate amounts of calcium and Vitamin D. In fact, a balanced diet is key in supporting your health in the lead-up to menopause.
While some women choose to up their intake of soy products - a source of oestrogen - Dr Pecoraro warns against consuming too many foods of this kind.
"You’ve just got to be careful. Phytoestrogen is just oestrogen made by a plant, but we do know if you give menopausal women oestrogen without progesterone you can actually cause some other problems," he says. "So, my advice is to be a bit wary of the so-called natural alternatives because they’ve got side-effects and risks associated with them."
Instead, Dr Pecoraro suggests women consider hormone replacement medications. The most popular tablet is even plant-based (made from yams!) but will help ensure you get the correct dosage to ease your symptoms.
A few things to keep your eye on
- Your mental health
A woman's risk of depression increases two to four times during menopause, even if they don't have a family history of mental illness, a recent study found.
"There is statistically an increase in the risk of things like anxiety or depression once you become peri-menopausal or menopausal and that may be related to changes in the hormone levels, directly affecting the production and break down of brain chemicals like serotonin," Dr Pecoraro says.
Hormones and brain chemicals aside, it can be a confronting time in the lives of most women who might also be mourning the loss of their fertility, dealing with the effects of ageing, watching children grow up and move out of the home.
Whatever the root, changes in your mood and mental health are common for menopausal women, and Dr Pecoraro suggests speaking to your doctor if you're having a tough time.
- Your relationship
Second to hot flushes, one of the most common complaints of menopause is vaginal dryness, which can affect how your bladder works can cause pain during penetrative intercourse.
"If [a woman has] a very dry vagina, that can certainly cause pain during intercourse, you can have splitting and tearing of the vagina, you can have decreased lubrication and that can make intercourse painful and that may cause relationship issues if [you and your partner] don’t talk about it," Dr Pecoraro warns.
It's vital to communicate with your partner about your menopausal side effects, especially if you're experiencing a lack of libido or vaginal discomfort, and remember there are a number of options available from lubricants to hormone injections.
- Your bones
Due to the rapid decrease in hormones that comes with menopause, a woman's bone density will take a hit and make them more susceptible to broken bones and issues later in life.
As previously mentioned, calcium and vitamin D are vital, as is a form of a low-intensity, weight-bearing exercise, like walking.
Hormone replacement therapy can also help with bone density, and can reduce your risk of breaking a hip by up to 50 percent, Dr Pecoraro reports.
Having regular medical check-ups with your GP will help you stay on top of any concerns you have regarding menopause and its effects. Dr Pecoraro recommends staying informed via your doctor, who can recommend a course of action for any unwanted side effects.