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What Is Menopause?

The menopause is an inevitable part of ageing for all women, but it can be a little overwhelming. This is particularly true if you don't fully understand the changes your body is going through.

We’re going to take a look at menopause in this article to hopefully make it clearer.

What are hormones and how do they affect menopause?

Hormones are substances that are created within the body and signal that a certain bodily function or process should occur at a given time. The main female hormones that control the menstrual cycle are oestrogen and progesterone.

As a woman ages, the levels of these hormones produced by her body can lessen and fluctuate. It is this that brings about the symptoms of menopause.

What is menopause?

The word menopause describes the time in a woman’s life when her periods stop completely and she is no longer able to have children. Menopause generally occurs somewhere between the ages of 45 and 55. According to the NHS, the average age for a woman in the UK to experience menopause is 51.

Roughly 1 in 100 women experience an early menopause, before the age of 40. This is known as premature menopause.

There are three phases:

  1. Premenopause: This describes the initial phase, when hormone levels start to fluctuate and decrease.

  2. Perimenopause: This literally means “the time around menopause” and describes the transition time around menopause and shortly afterwards. Estrogen levels are 20-30% higher than during premenopause.

  3. Postmenopause: To be considered postmenopausal, a woman can’t have had a period for 12 months.

What are the first signs of menopause?

The first signs of menopause that premenopausal women usually notice are changes to their periods. Their periods might become less frequent or lighter. Premenopause will have started with fluctuating levels of hormones even before there are any noticeable symptoms.

Perimenopause symptoms include:

  • Hot flashes

  • Night sweats

  • Vaginal dryness

  • Discomfort during sex

  • Tender breasts

  • Decrease in sex drive

  • Mood swings

  • Anxiety / generally feeling low

  • Issues with memory and concentration

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Irregular periods

Having some or all of these symptoms signals that you are going through the transitional period which comes before your periods stop altogether. Perimenopause lasts for 4 years on average, but women can experience symptoms for much longer.

When it has been 12 months since the last period, the perimenopause phase ends and a woman has officially reached menopause. This is then when she goes into postmenopause.

When should you see your GP?

You should speak to your doctor if either of the following apply to you:

  • You have menopausal symptoms and are finding that it affects your daily life and prevents you doing the things you usually do.

  • You are experiencing menopausal symptoms and you’re under the age of 40. Your doctor might do a blood test to determine whether your symptoms are caused by early menopause or something else.

If you are going through perimenopause, your doctor will be able to discuss possible treatments that might help you. HRT is an option that can make your symptoms more bearable.

What is HRT?

HRT is the short form of hormone replacement therapy, which describes a range of treatments prescribed to women to ease menopause symptoms.

When the transition into menopause begins, the levels of oestrogen and progesterone in the female body can lessen or fluctuate. HRT treatments replace these hormones with synthetic versions to help lessen the effects of menopause on the body.

HRT medications are available as tablets, patches, gels and implants.  

HRT risks and side effects

There are some risks and side effects associated with HRT, but these are generally considered to be outweighed by the positives. However you should make sure you understand all the implications before starting treatment and talk to your GP if you are at all concerned.

Each method of HRT has its own specific side effects, but the general side effects of HRT can include:

  • Sore breasts

  • Vaginal bleeding

  • Headaches

  • Indigestion

  • Nausea

  • Abdominal pain

Some forms of HRT can slightly increase your risk of developing the following conditions:

  • Breast cancer

  • Ovarian cancer

  • Womb cancer

  • Blood clots

  • Heart disease / stroke

Read more about the risks and side effects of HRT.