There are quite a few ‘firsts’ in a woman’s life: the first date, the first kiss and the first heart broken; but those firsts are quite common for all. No, I’m thinking more about firsts that are peculiar to women: her first period, the first time she has sex, her first pregnancy and to complete the quartet, her menopause.
I vividly remember one of my ‘firsts’, I awoke one morning convinced I was dying and screamed out in terror, only for my older sister to nonchalantly say “oh it’s only your period”. So whilst I wasn’t going to bleed to death, I was starting on my journey towards womanhood.
So having travelled this road for quite a few miles with a couple of stops en route in the form of two sons, I can see a blind bend coming up around which I have no idea what awaits.
Of course the menopause is slightly different from the other ‘firsts’ because rather than new beginnings, it signals the end of something; child bearing days are over and it may be the start of some pretty unpleasant side effects including hot flushes, insomnia and in more serious cases bone and muscle problems.
But given it is an inevitable part of ‘life’ surely, in that matter-of-fact way so many of us have of dealing with our body clock, we will just grin and bear it and certainly not discuss it openly.
Of course there are some women who mourn their loss of productivity; when they lose the ability to procreate, they see themselves as less of a woman which may impact on their self-esteem and mental well-being.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
There are the countless ways our bodies can react, some may not experience anything but statistically 8/10 women will suffer one or more symptoms including:
- hot flushes
- night sweats
- dizzy spells or light headedness
- loss of libido
- headaches, nausea & depression
- heart palpitations
The symptoms may last months or even years and unfortunately you have no way of knowing if or how it will affect you until it happens.
Other possible side effects are due to the loss of collagen; your hair and skin may become thinner and drier; genitalia will similarly dry and even shrink, making sex uncomfortable; you may pass urine more frequently and contract infections; and osteoporosis will result in weaker bones.
So not a great deal to look forward to and just what is it that causes so many problems?
IT’S MY HORMONES
Oestrogen: the group of hormones, oestrone (E1), oestradiol (E2) and oestriol (E3) that create our female characteristics is to blame.
When your ovaries run out of eggs (we are born with a finite number), there is no longer any need to produce oestrogen and it is these hormones that have such a huge impact (there is a test you can have to calculate how many eggs you have left).
The unknown factor is when will it happen? The average age in the UK is 51 and the first signs might be changes to your period e.g. lighter, heavier or less frequent; this time leading up to your last period is the perimenopause.
So given that it’s inevitable, what can you do to minimise the risk of suffering the side effects?
The most well-known remedy is Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) that has been prescribed for many years and it restores the oestrogen. It comes in tablet form, skin patches, nasal spray, gels, pessary or a vaginal ring.
However, HRT is not suitable for everyone particularly women who may be at higher risk of breast cancer or deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
There is the additional controversy over one of the methods used to produce this drug as it is extracted from the urine of pregnant mares that are kept in foal in order to maintain a supply of the hormone. There have been concerns raised about the welfare of both the mare and the foals.
So how about alternatives to HRT?
Prescribed medicines include anti-depressants e.g. fluoxetine and paroxetine, clonidine and gabapentin.
There are also over 200 alternative treatments including herbal remedies, acupressure, acupuncture, homeopathy and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) supplements.
Some of the herbs used are: St John’s Wort, black cohosh, chasteberry, selenium and valerian root.
However, whilst these are herbal they are not necessarily harmless and you must look closely at likely contra-indications; dong quai (angelica senensis), evening primrose oil and Ginseng are likely culprits and kava kava (piper methysticum) is banned in the UK.
There are other self-help remedies you could try: take regular light exercise, yoga, reduce caffeine intake and alcohol. Improving your diet and lifestyle will of course always have other benefits.
So faced with this unavoidable phase in your life, perhaps it’s time to start talking about it more openly and positively, OK I’m not suggesting you should embrace it, because there are many who find it difficult to cope with the changes and are suffering unpleasant symptoms, but we’re all in it together so let’s tackle it face on and share our stories of how we made it through.
I for one will be glad not to fork out anymore money for packets of sanitary protection … wings or no wings!