We’ve all heard about “the menopause”: the Boogie-Woman of “old age”. The one who comes for us all. She Who Must Not Be Named. But what you might not have heard so much about is perimenopause.
All jokes aside, there is a stigma surrounding everything to do with menopause. Women don’t like to talk about it, because it’s the first tangible reminder of our own mortality in our adult life; and of course, men don’t want to talk about it because the mysterious workings of a lady’s “downstairs” has been taboo since… forever.
So, like all of us, I knew “changes” were in my future. I’d heard about “hot flushes”; I imagined mood swings; and I imagined that, somewhere in my mid-fifties, I wake up one morning at it would it start, and some time after that – maybe 6 months later? – those changes would settle down again.
I’d never heard of perimenopause.
In my mid-40s, I started to experience “discomforts”. Erratic sleeping and insomnia, hot flushes, night sweats, and even palpitations became regular occurrences. Was I suffering from anxiety? About what?
Then there were the mood swings. Well, I wasn’t sleeping well! What do you expect?
But then I started to experience other physical symptoms as well: itching all over my body and especially in the vaginal area, headaches became more common and more severe, changes even in my hair: some people experience hair loss, but in my case it became finer and lighter. I even felt myself thinking differently!
A little bit of research told me these were all common symptoms of… The Menopause.
But I was still young! I felt my body had betrayed me! At 45 my change had begun. I mourned and struggled with that, but most importantly I did it privately, like I thought I was meant to do. As I thought all other women did and had done before.
It was just another thing we all go through – alone! – as we do each month from puberty.
I was determined to endure it and, I supposed, in 6 months or so, it would be over.
I’m not 45 any more. I’m not even in my forties any more, and this change is still going on. Glacier slow – sometimes fiery, sometimes chilling – reshaping me: body, mind and soul.
What I didn’t know, what my research didn’t tell me, was that the menopause – the change in our hormones that ends our phase of fertility – is preceded by a period of perimenopause. That’s the bit which has all the symptoms you know, when our oestrogen levels start to shift and our body struggles to keep up.
This phase typically starts 7-8 years before the menopause finally turns off the faucet for good!
Some women start to experience it as early as their 30s (and some very unlucky women in their 20s), but it is no short event!
Perimenopause has been known to last as long as 10 years or more. That means, for most women, it typically lasts longer than puberty, with at least as wide-ranging effects on our minds and bodies, and yet, because of the stigma surrounding it, the whole affair is shrouded in euphemisms and shame.
What’s the point of that?! As if it’s not hard enough, having your body rebel against you for a decade, we’re meant to keep it a secret as well?
As the years went on, I found adapting to the whole situation hugely demotivating. Sometimes it was painful, there was no end in sight, and my symptoms were not only unpredictable but also inevitable.
When faced we such a situation is it any wonder that most women feel powerless? Doubly so if you allow yourself to believe that you’re going through it alone.
And that’s the rub! You must not just to surrender to it. This isn’t something to be endured. Fighting your symptoms is, of course, fruitless, but the more you understand the process, listen to your body and talk to your friends, your family and your doctors, the better chance you have of understanding your body’s new reality.
Make a plan for what your body needs now during this time of change, but also for what you will need once this phase is over. Unlike what millennia of men would have you believe: women’s lives and “usefulness” do not end with menopause.
In fact, when I came to terms with my own perimenopause I realised: this is a whole new beginning!
Managing Your Perimenopause
First and foremost, if you haven’t started already, make sure you start having frequent gynecological checkups. At least every 6-12 months, but don’t be afraid to suggest more often if you’re suffering from particularly changeable or seemingly random symptoms.
There are many tests these days to help you and your doctors to understand what you’re going through. These include cytologies, analytics and hormonal profiles. Tracking these fluctuations closely and talking about them gave me back a sense of understanding, if not actual control. Once I was able to identify symptoms for myself I no longer felt like I was stumbling around in the dark, just waiting to run into the next wall.
But these checkups are not only good for your own mental health. The imbalance in our hormones in this phase of life can have serious consequences for our health. It effects every woman differently, and the effects are cumulative.
Typical things to be aware of are that our bodies get worse at maintaining themselves. That’s why your hair might get thinner and your skin will likely lose its elasticity, and on the inside, it’s likely that your body isn’t making your bones as strong as it used to. This all happens with just getting older too, but the changes in our hormones will amplify all the changes coming with time.
At the other extreme, your body also gets less good at protecting itself from bad cells, bacteria and viruses. This is why rates of cancer, disease and infection all increase with age. The closer we keep an eye on our physical health, the better our chances of catching any problems early and minimising their ill-effects.
Everyday Improvements to Keep You Young
Beyond developing a close relationship with your gynaecologist and GP, what else should we be looking out for?
As always: stay active. Maintaining your motivation can be a challenge, so make sure you include activities in your daily routine that you enjoy and encourage you to stay active. Whether it’s going to the gym, swimming, sports with friends or simply walking rather than driving, there are bound to be many opportunities to keep active.
And it’s not enough to stay physically active. You have to exercise your mind too! Keep learning new things. This is not only interesting but it will help you to feel much more productive and can even change your whole perspective during this phase of life. Who knows? You may even discover a whole new career, but never let yourself think you’re too old.
Take advantage of every new opportunity! We can all keep improving!
The last thing to keep in mind when monitoring your health is to review your eating habits. Make sure that everything you put into your body is contributing to your integral health. That can include the things we eat for pleasure too! But everything in life is better in moderation!
If you need some help with your diet, I’m a big fan of intermittent dieting. There are some great books and fantastic recipes available, and I’ll be following up with more of my favourites later on.
So, what do you think?
If you’ve read this far and you think you’re going through the same, don’t be afraid! Share your experiences below and together we’ll find the keys to unlock what is simply a natural stage of every woman’s life.