If you’re in your thirties and forties, the chances are that you’ve heard about perimenopause, but aren’t quite sure exactly what it is, or, indeed, whether it’s something that might concern you. There’s so much conflicting information out there, and with a lot of people feeling scared off HRT (hormone replacement therapy) because of concerns over possible links with breast cancer, it can be difficult to come up with an action plan for how to best cope with this stage of life. In many cases, many women opt for simply burying their heads in the sand and ignoring it all in the hope that it will go away. But with menopause being a fact for over 50% of the population, perhaps embracing it armed with facts is a better option?
We turned to one of Britain’s menopause experts, Dr Louise R Newson BSc (Hons) MBChB (Hons) MRCP FRCG, to help us separate fact from fiction and hear her expert view on perimenopause. Like us, Louise is a big believer in breaking the taboo surrounding talking about women’s experience of menopause, and believes passionately in educating women so they can make the best choices for themselves and their bodies. She gives regular talks which women flock to from all over the UK, and tells us that it’s absolutely possible to turn the fear that some women have about menopause on its head and encourage them to see it as a really positive time in their lives.
“Perimenopause simply means ‘around the time of menopause’,” Dr. Louise Newson tells Lumity. “You’re considered to be menopausal when you have not had a period for one year. But you can still have menopausal symptoms like night sweats whilst having periods, so that’s where a lot of the confusion seems to stem from. If you’re still having periods, but having hot flushes or other symptoms of menopause, then you’re perimenopausal.”
Are there tests we can get to check our hormone levels and verify if we’re perimenopausal or menopausal?
“Unfortunately, other than going on how long it is until you had your last period, there’s no one test that doctors can do to determine if you’re in menopause,” Louise underlines. “We can measure your hormones one day, but those tests are so sensitive that we would get different readings if we did one every single day over the course of one week. Instead, keep an eye on things like your periods getting lighter, or heavier, or more infrequent. If you also start getting some of the symptoms of menopause; hot flushes, night sweats, mood swings, tiredness and poor sleep, very heavy or very light periods, worsening PMS, loss of libido, memory problems then these are indicators that you’re in perimenopause.”
In the UK, the average age of menopause is said to be around 52, while perimenopause can start as early as 35 onwards, with the majority of women noticing changes in their early forties.
What can people experiencing uncomfortable symptoms do to make them more bearable? “Twenty-five percent of women sail through menopause without any symptoms at all,” Louise explains. “But some women experience just a few of the symptoms and others feel that their quality of life is unbearable. The key is to see your doctor, who can discuss options and then come up with a tailored plan for you. Don’t suffer in silence and do arm yourself with information. Lifestyle changes will help; eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, not smoking or drinking too much alcohol, as well as reducing stress as much as you can will all help diminish symptoms.”
So what about HRT? We have heard conflicting reports: “HRT is not a one size fits all treatment and is such a huge subject that it merits an article of its own,” Louise says. “For the majority of women who are under sixty years old the benefits of HRT far outweigh the risks. You can start it while you are still having periods and there’s many different kinds and forms. It is much safer than most people realise. Many women wait until their symptoms are really troublesome or even unbearable before starting HRT. However, taking HRT early while you’re perimenopausal and still having periods will really lead to a marked reduction in your symptoms. Many women say their quality of life is greatly improved, and on top of that it will lead to an improvement in your heart and bone health.”
Louise summarises: “Do try to see perimenopause and menopause as a positive time for change, don’t be in denial or pretend it’s not happening: It’s a natural part of life that all women will experience. Your attitude and willingness to get help if you need it will make all the difference as to whether you sail through menopause or if it’s a dark and gloomy time.”