OK hands up if you are going through “the change”? Being honest and admitting how hard this journey is can provide an outlet and a way of finding support. The conversations I have had with other women going through perimenopause have potentially saved my life and those I share a home with. Preventing yourself from having a total sense of humour failure, is key to surviving this time in your life, because let’s face it, this s**t is really difficult at times. So here goes.
My name is Stephanie, I am 47 years old and going through the perimenopause. My journey started some years ago at around the age of 44. I had no idea what was happening to me but I started experiencing changes in my sleep pattern. I had my son at 40 so I thought this was just the knock-on effect of the sleepless nights that come with parenting. I was also experiencing anxiety and joint pain, head spins after doing a burpee, brain fog, memory loss, and the inability to even speak properly at times. Little did I know this was down to declining estrogen levels. I genuinely thought I was going through early signs of dementia because my grandmother suffered from this (albeit later in life). I was petrified of what google would tell me and what the Dr would say if I was honest. So I suffered in silence until the emotional side of the change cracked through the surface and I started to cry at TV commercials during lockdown 1.0. I knew then I needed a proper diagnosis, as my gut instinct was now telling me it was my hormones.
Last year in 2020 it all changed for me. I gained half a stone of weight from briefly taking the mini pill (for my now erratic period, this didn’t help, so I stopped after 3 months) and felt like I was falling apart emotionally. The night sweats became unbearable, I mean being drenched in sweat during your sleep, as if you have just done a spinning class, is not pleasant. Waking up tossing and turning every night and then not being able to get back to sleep for up to 2 hours left me so exhausted each day I developed a twitching eyelid. I was a hot sweaty mess.
Then one day I went out for one of the many socially distanced lockdown 1.0 walks with my GP sister-in-law and opened up about what I was going through and she said to me, “if you were my patient I would put you on HRT straight away”. I said “but it’s not safe to take HRT, is it”? and she said, “actually it carries the same risks as drinking a glass of red wine a day”. Sign me up!
After that the research began. Perimenopause (meaning around menopause) can start in your early 40’s but most commonly it's your mid to late 40’s that this process begins. At this stage, your estrogen and progesterone production slows, and you begin to make the transition into menopause. Around 75% of women experience the below symptoms during perimenopause.
- hot flashes
- mood swings
- night sweats
- difficulty sleeping
- vaginal dryness
- changes in sex drive
- trouble concentrating
- hair loss
- fast heart rate
- urinary problems
- bloated stomach
Perimenopause can last for 8 to 10 years (I died a little inside when I read this, how am I going to survive this time when I felt like a shell of my former self!). You’ll likely still get a period during this time, but your menstrual cycles will become more erratic. During the last year or two of perimenopause, you may skip periods. The periods you do get could be heavier or lighter than usual. Once you have ceased your periods for 12 months you would officially be in menopause and following this phase you reach post-menopause and you may still experience some symptoms. The average age for menopause is 51. At this point, your ovaries are no longer releasing eggs or making much estrogen.
Statistics show only 50% of women seek treatment to survive this brutal time and only 17% of women take HRT. Now for some, it is relatively easy and they don’t really suffer any of the symptoms but for me, I was ticking almost every box and I needed help.
So this is my journey and below are some tips I have compiled (through my experience) on navigating your way through menopause so you can maintain your sanity and your wellbeing.
1. Get support from your friends and family
As I discovered on my journey, talking was therapy for me as it lightened the load in my mind. It helped me keep my sense of humour, and helped me discover my options for treatment. I am a pretty stoic human and I don’t like to complain, but being honest with my partner and talking to other women experiencing the same symptoms was of huge benefit to me. Friends and relatives showed me compassion and offered advice on their own experiences which in turn pointed me in the right direction.
This time in our lives is completely natural and biological and we should not feel ashamed to tell our stories. The conversations that I had, led me to take HRT which has literally changed my life within a few short months. For me, this was the best option after trying many other treatments first.
If you need to talk to someone outside your tribe you can find support here through Menopause Support UK and there is a great free app available called Balance that can help you to track your symptoms, access personalised expert content, share stories, and lots more.
2. Speak with your Doctor
Don’t sit there googling forever and a day. OK, maybe it will educate you on the options available but don’t procrastinate and suffer in silence as I did. Speak with your local GP or ask for a referral. You can also find a registered British Menopause Society specialist Dr here.
3. Exercise regularly
Energy levels can decrease during menopause and it might make you feel like you don’t want to exercise. However, staying active during the transition can make a huge difference to your mental and physical health. Exercise does not have to mean an intense HIIT workout if you are feeling really tired. A 30-minute walk in nature can increase your heart rate while also increasing your daily dose of vitamin D. Other low-impact workouts like yoga or pilates, swimming or cycling can help you maintain body tone, flexibility, and bone density which are super important as we age.
4. Eat a balanced diet
When the levels of estrogen in your body drop rapidly, the levels of a hormone called androgen can also change. This can cause a hormonal imbalance, which can cause weight gain and could leave you experiencing a new level of hunger. Just like when you are on your period you might crave salty, sweet, and carb-rich foods due to hormonal shifts. With the average weight gain for women during and after menopause around 4.5 pounds it is super important to eat a healthy balanced diet and try and stave off those naughty cravings.
A diet high in fibre and antioxidants can help decrease the oxidative stress that your body is going through during the menopause transition. Foods such as berries, nuts, kale, dark chocolate are rich in antioxidant properties. Flax seeds, soybeans, edamame, and tofu are excellent sources of phytoestrogens which can help combat symptoms of menopause and can also play a role in fighting cancer.
Eating iron-rich and calcium-dense foods might help relieve some menopausal symptoms, like changes in mood and hot flashes. Whilst cutting down on caffeine and alcohol can help reduce hot flashes, it may also help you sleep better and, in turn, help manage your symptoms. You can read our article on sleep hygiene here for further tips on improving your sleep.
Drinking 2-3 litres of water a day is not only good for your skin health but it will help your body flush out toxins and stay hydrated. There are plenty of menopausal-specific supplements on the market which can help. Please consult your doctor or nutritionist for further information on dietary changes to help you through this time.
5. Relax and destress
Having a busy and stressful life with little to no self-care time won't help with managing your wellness or mood swings. Make time for yourself daily to manage, at the very least a good skincare routine, read a book and try to spend time outside in nature. Nature does wonders for our mental health and this is scientifically proven.
Mindfulness and meditation techniques are excellent tools for reducing stress and helping to manage menopause-related symptoms. You can read our blog to learn more about meditation here. All of these techniques can help your hormones find their new balance.
Alternative medicine like acupuncture can be a great option for the relief of menopausal symptoms. I personally had 6 sessions prior to taking HRT which helped my sleep issues and my stress levels as acupuncture can alter neurotransmitters in the brain to alleviate conditions such as anxiety and nervousness and improve one's overall mood.
Traditional Chinese medicine is rooted in yin and yang theory, the idea that all things are composed of two opposite forces. When those forces are in balance, the body is healthy and vice versa. By using acupuncture needles at pressure points in the body it can stimulate the central nervous system, lower blood pressure and stimulate the release of neurochemicals that can counteract imbalances.
A small 2019 study found that 5 weeks of acupuncture reduced hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, and sleep disruptions in women dealing with menopause symptoms.
While the researchers couldn’t rule out the placebo effect in their study, they also concluded acupuncture was “a safe, cost-effective and simple procedure, with very few side-effects reported.”
You can find an acupuncturist near you here.
7. How to treat hormonal acne
Roughly 25% of women report skin problems during menopause. Perimenopausal Acne develops in women for much the same reasons that it curses our years in puberty. The changes and imbalances in hormone levels during this stage of life impact our skin’s natural defences and can trigger acne. Typically, the affected areas on the face are under the cheekbones and jawline. Acne is a combination of blackheads, whiteheads, and spots or cysts and they can be painful to touch and emotionally debilitating. Please do not pop them, this can exacerbate the problem and cause them to scar.
Treating acne can be difficult and sometimes may require prescription drugs, please do consult your Dr if you are concerned and in need of help.
There are other ways to help your skin and this includes, eating a healthy diet rich in fibre and omega 3 & 6, drinking plenty of water, and adopting a new skincare regime. We recommend the following:
- Always remove your make-up and avoid using disposable wipes as they will clog your pores and they are not eco-friendly.
- Do cleanse acne-prone skin with a cleanser that contains salicylic acid. This helps unclog pores as it is oil-soluble, it penetrates the skin and breaks down the ‘glue in between cells’ that cause breakouts.
- Acid tone after cleansing, this is the gentle exfoliation your skin needs to renew. Don’t use products with alcohol in them, look for AHA (Alpha hydroxy acids such as glycolic, citric, mandelic, and lactic). The acid will also stimulate collagen reproduction which is great for signs of aging.
- Apply your chosen face serum now. Retinol will speed up skin cell turnover and prevent dead skin cells from clogging pores and peptides (Matrixyl 3000) will tell the skin to produce more collagen and elastin. Both will improve your skin tone and smooth out fine lines. Halcyon will soon be launching our scientifically proven plant-based face serums so watch this space!
- Use an oil-free moisturiser during the day if you want to control your facial oil by mid-afternoon but do still consider using a facial oil dedicated to acne underneath it. For example, a few drops of Bio-Oil can make all the difference to your skin. It is non-comedogenic, which means it won’t clog pores and is unlikely to cause acne on your face and it can help improve scarring.
- Avoid tanning, and always apply sunscreen when spending time outdoors.
- Please don’t use harsh facial scrubs; they will not help your acne or your skin barrier.
8. Busting the myth on the dangers of HRT
Basically, menopause or perimenopause is a hormone deficiency. What a lot of people don’t know is that HRT is now almost body identical and is made from soy and yams, so it’s completely natural and plant-based. There is a lot of misinformation out there that terrifies women and new studies have found it to be quite safe to take. However, there is an increased risk of breast cancer by taking HRT but there is more of increased risk by drinking two glasses of wine a day and there is an enormously higher risk of breast cancer from being obese. Although not entirely risk-free, it remains the most effective solution for the relief of menopausal symptoms and is also effective for the prevention of osteoporosis.
Women who still have a uterus need to take a progestogen (progesterone or a similar product) along with the estrogen to prevent cancer of the uterus. Five years or less is usually the recommended duration of use for this combined treatment, but the length of time can be individualized for each woman. There are a few ways to receive the recommended dose which your Dr can prescribe for you.
For me personally, it was the right choice to take HRT. I really look after my body and try to live a balanced and healthy lifestyle. I don’t smoke, I exercise, I check my breasts regularly, I do everything I can to stay fit and healthy. Osteoporosis is quite common and heart disease is a huge killer of people over 50 so taking HRT felt like a no-brainer to me.
9. Dress for a hot flash
Last but not least dress in loose layers so that you can easily peel off a layer or two when you start flashing! It’s always best to stick with breathable fabrics such as cotton especially when sleeping. Maybe grab yourself a cute little Japanese fan for your handbag, it is a great tool for an instant cool down.
However you choose to navigate your way through this time, do your research, don’t be afraid to use your voice, and above all, be kind to yourself and do what is right for you. This is your journey and you are the only person who knows what is best for you.
Rumour has it we may feel liberated when we get to the other side of our hormone deficiency journey, I do hope so, as hope is all we have right? I sincerely wish you the best and send you all the love and strength to find your wellness again, see you on the other side ladies!