Understanding Menopause Symptoms
Kathy Abernethy is a Menopause Specialist Nurse working for both the NHS and private clinics. Kathy is the author of ‘Menopause: The One Stop Guide’, a highly commended book that serves as a practical guide for women who are experiencing the menopause.
Below, Kathy shares some information on key symptoms that you may be experiencing in the months or years leading up your menopause, to help you understand this time in your life.
Menopause is a normal part of aging and something you should not be afraid of! Most women experience the menopause in their 40s or 50s, although this can vary considerably.[i] You may start to notice changes in your cycle, months or years before you reach the menopause, and this is known as the perimenopause.1
While it isn’t possible to know exactly when you will reach menopause, pay close attention to how you are feeling and make note of any changes you are experiencing. Symptoms of perimenopause and menopause can vary greatly from woman to woman, with some women having no symptoms at all. Learn more about some of the possible symptoms here:
Changes to your periods
Often the first tell-tale sign of the menopause is a change in your regular period pattern. You may notice periods becoming more or less frequent, heavier or lighter until eventually they stop completely.[ii]
Do you find yourself feeling uncomfortably hot? Like you could use some extra air-con? Known as a vasomotor symptom, hot flushes are one of the most common symptoms experienced by perimenopausal women.[iii] Flushes can start before you see any change in your period pattern. Flushes may then last for many more years. The frequency also varies, some women may experience the occasional hot flush, whereas for others it’s a daily event. At first, it may seem that the hot flushes occur randomly, however it is possible to identify triggers such as certain foods, hot drinks and stress. These hot flushes tend to be caused by changes in levels of hormones responsible for regulating your body temperature.[iv]
These are another vasomotor symptom and are most accurately described as hot flushes occurring at night. Night sweats disrupt your sleep and can lead to non-desirable impacts on your health, mood and well-being.[v] It is not unusual to be jolted awake multiple times a night by a sweat and having to change into different night clothes. It’s something that many women experience during the menopause and is very disruptive, leaving you feeling exhausted the next day.
Low mood and anxiety
Similarly, reduced general happiness and low moods are symptoms that can also be explained by changes in hormones. It is not unusual to feel some anxiety around this time too.[vi] So much is changing in your body, you are adapting and making sense of it all. Self-care, an understanding of what you are experiencing, and feeling supported through it can help reduce this anxious state. Feeling great one day and low the next can be upsetting, but rest assured you are not alone here.
Changes to sleeping patterns are commonly experienced. Poor quality of sleep can be exacerbated by other symptoms of menopause, such as night sweats or feelings of anxiety.[vii] Inadequate rest can make you feel like you are struggling to function throughout the day. Many women relate to feeling tired during the day but then not being able to sleep at night. It can feel like a never-ending cycle.
This is one of the most difficult symptoms to define and one of the easiest to attribute to any other factor, or as a side effect of lack of sleep (another symptom of the menopause). It is crucial to understand how thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and actions do interconnect and can impact each other. The physical changes during the menopause can bring on new feelings such as increased anxiousness2 or unwanted grumpiness. Acting out of character, saying and doing things that on a regular day just wouldn’t be you is all very normal and being aware of this, can help alleviate it.
Brought on by a drop in your body’s production of the hormone oestrogen, this is a symptom that most women do not seek help for, but perhaps should. The uncomfortable dryness and irritation tend to linger much longer than other menopausal symptoms, and in some cases can be quite painful.[viii]
Reduced sex drive
Many women lose interest in sex during this time, and perhaps understandably so.[ix] Between the low moods, night sweats and all the aches and pains, it’s easy for women to think they’re now committed to a life of celibacy…what some women do find is that as they manage other symptoms and feel better overall, their sex drive begins to resurface!
Fluctuating hormones account for a lot. Heart palpitations (being aware of your heart beating) are another symptom that you may experience. Stress and anxiety may also be culprits for increased palpitations. If temporary and you are otherwise well, these are not usually a cause for concern[x] but if they do persist, always seek advice from a medical professional.
Lower oestrogen levels also put women at a higher risk of developing osteoporosis (thinning bones). Women can lose up to 20% of their bone density in the 5-7 years following the menopause.[xi] Staying active and eating a healthy balanced diet can help maximise bone strength and keep them strong.[xii]
Recurrent urinary tract infections (UTIs)
During the menopause, you may find yourself treating multiple UTI’s. UTI’s are identified by the following: needing to make toilet trips suddenly and more often, painful or burning sensations when urinating and changes in urine – cloudiness or the presence of blood.[xiii] These may be associate with vaginal dryness symptoms too.
Headaches, joint stiffness, aches, pains and reduced muscle mass are all further symptoms of the menopause2
You may not experience all of these. Different women experience different combinations at different times.
Finally, do not put up with symptoms without understanding them. If you need to, seek help from a medical professional who can provide further advice and put your mind at ease if you are ever unsure about anything.
Talking about the menopause and breaking the taboo around it, sharing your experience with other women, supporting each other – all of this makes everything so much easier. The #ExpressYourFemal campaign embodies this and encourages women to express themselves. Re-invent or rediscover yourself, the menopause doesn’t define you.
[i] Abernethy, K. 2018. The one-stop guide menopause. A practical guide to understanding and dealing with the menopause, Profile books. London.
[iii] The Lancet. (2017). New pathways in the treatment for menopausal hot flushes. [Accessed 4th December 2019]. Available at: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(17)30886-3/fulltext
[iv] NHS. (2018). Hot flushes. [Accessed 4th December 2019]. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/menopause/hot-flushes/
[v] Medical News Today. (2018). Coping with menopausal hot flashes and night sweats. [Accessed 4th December 2019]. Available at: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/322351.php
[vi]NHS. (2018). Menopause Treatment. [Accessed 4th December 2019]. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/menopause/treatment/
[vii] Healthline. (2016). Can Menopause Cause Insomnia. [Accessed 4th December 2019]. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/menopause/menopause-and-insomnia#connection
[viii] Harvard Health. (2019). Don’t ignore vaginal dryness and pain. [Accessed 4th December 2019]. Available at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/womens-health/dont-ignore-vaginal-dryness-and-pain
[xi] National Osteoporosis Foundation. (2014). Healthy bones For Life. [Accessed 4th December 2019]. Available at: https://cdn.nof.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Healthy-Bones-for-life-Clinician-Guide.pdf
[xii] NHS. (2017). Menopause and your bone health. [Accessed 4th December 2019]. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-body/menopause-and-your-bone-health/
[xiii] NHS. (2017). Urinary tract infections. [Accessed 4th December 2019]. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/urinary-tract-infections-utis/