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Signs and symptoms of menopause

Hormone levels dropping can cause all sorts of symptoms for women. About 85% of women experience some symptoms as they approach and transition through menopause. Most symptoms last for about 4 years from your last period, but one in every 10 women experience them for up to 12 years from the start of perimenopause to the end of menopause [1]. There are many different symptoms linked to menopause - here, we explain what some of the most common are. We don't cover them all symptoms here - only the most common. It's important to know that there are lots of services and products that can help you along your journey.

Physical symptoms

Hot flushes and night sweats

These are the 'mothers' of the menopausal symptoms - affecting up to 70% of women in Western cultures [2]. Hot flushes are when women experience an overwhelming sensation of extreme heat that washes wash over their body. There's often very little warning that the change in temperature is coming. The intense heat often causes the skin to flush. Night sweats are hot flushes that happen at night - which can leave women waking up soaked in sweat.

Like all symptoms, their severity differs from one person to the next. We've spoken to women who have really bad hot flushes and night sweats and others who only experience them mildly.

Vaginal symptoms

As oestrogen drops the structure of the genitals can change. Lower oestrogen causes the vaginal walls to become thinner. The pH of the vagina also increases - which allows bugs to grow causing infections. The natural secretions your vagina produces will also reduce as oestrogen drops. This means less lubrication down there! Such changes can lead to feelings of itching, burning and pain when you pee.

These changes are common - with up to 40% of women experiencing some vaginal symptoms. Yet, only half of those suffering seek help! Don't be embarassed to tell your health practitioner about your symptoms - it's the only way they can help!

Low libido

Low sex drive is a common complaint as women approaching menopause. Decreasing sexual appetite is completely normal - sex drive actually decreases with age for men and women. The drop is is more pronounced in women though.

Sex drive can change in women for hormonal or non-hormonal reasons. As oestrogen drops, the vaginal wall gets thinner and produces less lubrication. This can lead to painful sex, or a decreased desire because sex feels less pleasurable. Non-hormonal factors that impact sex drive include poor relationships, lack of sleep and stress.

Many women want a healthy sex drive into their 70s - so it's important not to ignore changes in sex drive. There are lubricants to make sex easier, and steps you can take to improve your mental health. Don't suffer in silence.

Dry skin and hair

One of oestrogens effects in the body is that it boosts our production of collagen. Collagen is an important protein that makes up our skin and nails. When levels of oestrogen fall collagen levels will drop too. This can cause skin to become dry and flaky and hair to become dry and brittle.

Don't worry though - there are plenty lifestyle changes you can make to support healthy skin and nails. There are also products to help reduce dry skin and flakiness.

Headaches

Headaches are common during perimenopause and menopause - due to the big swings in oestrogen and progesterone. Headaches can also worsened if you are not sleeping well - again something which is common as women age.

The relationship between menopause and migraines is not a straightforward one. Some studies suggest that the 'aura' that comes with migraines can lessen after a natural menopause. But surgical menopause seems to make migraines worse.

Weight gain

Women often report changes to their shape and weight as they approach menopause. Whilst changes in hormones may cause fat to deposit around the middle, hormones do not themselves cause weight gain. Hormonal changes just impact where the weight goes on the body.

Mental symptoms

Anxiety

Anxiety is a normal emotion - but becomes a problem when you are excessively worried about things and can not go about your normal life as a result. Many women will experience anxiety at different points throughout their life.

Anxiety can be very difficult to deal with and leave you feeling isolated - but there are effective treatments. These include practicing mindfulness, cognitive behavioural therapy, talking therapie as well as medication. Seek support from a medical practitioner if you are feeling anxious.

Low mood and depression

Depression is one of the most common illnesses in the world. It is persistent and prolonged periods of feeling low that makes life difficult to deal with. More than a single bad mood. A wide range of symptoms are associated with depression - from crying to not being able to leave the house.

Many different things can contribute to depression - and women do report it during perimenopause and menopause. There's often a lot going on in life at this time - aging parents, busy jobs and kids growing up. Each of these impact mental health.

Depression can be treated with psychological therapy, medication, or lifestyle changes. Again, speak to a medical practitioner if you are struggling.

Mood swings and irritability

Lots of women will have experienced some form of PMS (premenstrual syndrome) in the lead up to their period. PMS often manifests as mood swings - and being a bit more irritable (or grouchy) than normal. PMS mood swings cause by hormones - so you can guess that wild menopausal hormone swings might also bring changes to mood with them!

If mood swings are beginning to have an impact on your life and personal relationships then take action. Don't just ignore them and hope they go away! Lifestyle changes - like diet, exercise and stress relieving techniques such as mindfulness - can help you manage your mood.

Fatigue

There are different types of tiredness - but persistent exhaustion that makes life difficult is called fatigue. Fatigue can be another symptom of menopause. As with the other mental health symptoms discussed there are ways to help yourself with lifestyle or medication.

Brain fog

Some women struggle with 'brain fog' as they approach and pass through menopause. This term describes problems with memory, concentration, attention and learning new things.

Memory changes with age are completely normal. However, as with most symptoms, if changes in memory start having a significant impact on your ability to live your life you should seek help.

References:

1 National Health Services Website (2018). *Symptoms - menopause * Retrieved 10 October 2019 from [https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/menopause/symptoms/].

2 Hillard T., et al. (2017). Management of the menopause. 6th edn. British Menopause Society. UK.