I was talking to a lovely Dad at kindy drop off this morning and he asked what I did for a job. I told him about bon and how it started with tees but is evolving into a community for women around my age.
My menopause journey, and the de-olding of menopause in general, is central to this community, but I consciously held back from sharing that part of bon.
I think for 2 reasons - 1/. there's still a bit of a stigma around going through menopause - we're just at the beginning of the de-olding process, and 2/. although we'd been waving friendly hello's for a good year this was the 1st time we'd properly chatted about ourselves and our lives and I was worried divulging I was going through menopause would make him feel uncomfortable.
Two reasons to write this as soon as I got home.
So here is my beginners guide to menopause. A first step in the de-mystifying, de-stigmatising, de-olding process.
*It's based on my experience and everything I've learned so far. it's not a complete scientific guide.
What is menopause?
Menopause is simply the term for when you have officially stopped having periods. Which is the result of some very natural, supposed to happen, hormonal changes.
You've hit menopause when you haven't had a period for a full year. Not actually that much of a big deal. And potentially an upside if you had uncomfortable periods. Also - not having tampons and pads in your bathroom cupboard just freed up a decent amount of space.
When does it happen?
Women naturally hit 'technical' menopause (the day when you've officially not had a period for 12 months) at lots of different ages, but generally around late 40's to early 50's.
It's taken longer than that 12 month measure to get there though. Peri-menopause is the time leading up to that 12 month benchmark, and peri-menopause is long journey.
Peri-menopause begins for a very few in their 30's, a few not til their 50's, for most, some time through their mid - late 40's.
Age is kind of irrelevant though. It's about a natural change that's a journey of, on average, 7 years.
How does it work?
Menopause follows peri-menopause. Peri-menopause is the year/s leading up to menopause and it's actually this part that can make you feel the most like shit. It may last a few months, or up to 10 years. Menopause is the end bit, peri-menopause is the phase with the symptoms as your body works towards a period-free existence. Peri-menopause effects every woman differently - some not at all, others, to a debilitating effect. Mostly it's somewhere down the middle.
So to get things clear from the outset -
Menopause is :
A broad term with a terrible reputation encompassing three distinct phases :
Phase i. Peri-menopause :
The time, sometimes only a few months, generally 3-5 years, when your ovaries begin to run out of viable eggs to release each month, affecting the previously reliable, cyclical production of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. The process is not a steady gradual decline, instead production of these critical hormones becomes bumpy and haphazard. This continues to the point when there are no more viable follicles to develop mature eggs and the cessation of menstruation. Because the hormones estrogen, progesterone and testosterone play many roles within your body, their erratic production over this time causes an array of symptoms, including hot flushes, night sweats, heavy and irregular periods, mood changes, headaches, joint pain, vaginal dryness, and urinary and bladder problems. We can safely call this part of menopause the shittest part. (Although for a lucky 25% of women there will be no outward symptoms).
Phase ii. Menopause :
The moment when you hit 12 months period free. "Menopause" is literally just this "milestone" moment.
Phase iii. Post-menopause :
Your life from that 12 month point on. Delightfully, some of the peri-menopausal symptoms can persist for a time during this phase.
With that cleared up, let's continue on our merry way with a look at peri-menopause in more detail :
What are the symptoms of peri-menopause?
Generally, symptoms are split between emotional and physical. They include :
A not super exciting list to read. Let's do a group flipping of the bird to peri-menopause and move on.
What role do hormones play on the emotional side of things?
Hormones, in particular estrogen and progesterone, work in an incredibly complex way, but are essentially responsible for your menstrual cycle. But your little ovaries have been working hard making estrogen since puberty and quite frankly they need a holiday. Retirement actually. A fair call really.
We're also born with a set number of follicles which will develop eggs in a monthly cycle from puberty to menopause. When these follicles begin to dwindle in number and quality the previously reliable and incredibly complex, intricate hormonal dance between estrogen, progesterone and testosterone is disrupted, and their production becomes uneven and erratic. Kind of like the record they were dancing to got a big scratch in it and the needle is bouncing all over the place, but the record is still spinning around attempting to play their favourite song, but actually it's starting to sound really bad and super annoying and it's basically impossible to dance in time to the music.
So it's difficult to maintain consistent production of these hormones and your body's level of estrogen, progesterone and testosterone is changing and a bit all over the place during peri-menopause.
Hormones progesterone, estrogen and testosterone, are essentially chemical messengers living in your nervous system, busily sending messages to your brain, heart, bones, muscles, in fact most of the body's organs. For reasons unknown, maybe they're a little bit pissed about their working conditions and lack of paid leave, and despite, or maybe because of, the fact they're decreasing, these hormonal chemicals can be quite mean. Menopausal symptoms are your body's reaction to the fluctuating, and overall falling levels of these hormones.
Picture a bunch of tiny cockatoos living in your nervous system. Native, iconic, familiar, unpredictable, noisy, destructive. They're your changing hormones. The messages they send you during menopause are loud and disruptive and not very nice.
They're so loud in fact that physiologically we are forced to open them and read them and take them on board. The messages they send make you feel pissed off about things which previously didn't bother you. They make you feel moments of pure anger. They make you feel moments of sadness. They make you feel flustered and anxious and sometimes they make you wonder if you're actually depressed. Often for no apparent reason.
These hormonal cockatoos poke you with their tiny cockatoo beaks until you want to punch them in their tiny cockatoo faces. And the truly shitty bit is that none of us want to feel like we want to punch a tiny, loveable, iconic cockatoo in the face. Before they started sending us their mean messages we liked them and their cheeky, destructive personalities. We would never even have thought about punching a cockatoo in the face.
But during peri-menopause it takes alot of energy not to punch them in the face. It's draining on so many levels. It makes us tired and sometimes we need more space than usual, and to buy something expensive and to just get the fuck out of the house and get some fresh air and not cook dinner and drink 50 cocktails (ha, a close relation of the cockatoo, how ironic).
So that's the emotional effect of the menopause cockatoo. (I kid you not a cocktaoo just landed on my balcony. He looked nice).
What role do hormones play on the physical side of things?
The physical effect of these hormonal feathered f*ckers is equally draining. They peck away at our body thermostat with their tiny little beaks until it short circuits and our bodies overheat in a huge hot flush. Sometimes this happens hourly, sometimes not for days. Sometimes you sweat, sometimes you need to sit down because it takes your breath away and makes you light headed. It almost always causes you to lose track of your train of thought and it happens at any time. There's not much else to say about this except exercise and staying hydrated really helps. (more in the summary below).
Their incessant pecking also gives us headaches and can make our joints ache. Personally, I think they suck the lustre out of our skin and hair for the purpose of making their feathers shinier but that's just me and as yet there is no scientific evidence to back it up. If not for the cockatoo's feather though, where is all that lustre going?!?
They also appear concerned about future nutrition so in a lot of cases the cockatoos behave like little squirrels and begin to stash away fat stores for future use. Urrm, excuse me tiny Cockatoo, can you keep your fat stores out of my body please? This "helpfully" stored body fat, which outwardly looks like cellulite or weight gain, is uninvited and often exacerbates the above listed feelings of frustration and general grumpiness.
I'm so reluctant to note it here because it's an age related reference but generally our metabolism slows a bit with age. Menopause often occurs as we approach new and exciting decades, so it coincides with this slowing of the metabolism and associated weight gain. Not entirely the tiny cockatoos' fault, but as with life in general, it's never just one thing, it's always a million tiny things. There's a lot of stuff coinciding at this time in our lives which can lead to weight gain.
In my case, the flurry of tiny cockatoo activity around my nervous system seems to super drain me and I am having a hard time keeping weight on. It's different for everyone but safe to say they can, and do, fuck with your weight.
What can we do to tame these crazy hormonal cockatoos and associated side effects?
Menopause affects us all differently, and in multiple physical and emotional ways. You'll generally feel more tired and more grumpy and more emotional and more irrational and you'll have uncharacteristic moments of anger. Even though your body is doing exactly what it's supposed to, it's uncomfortable and annoying.
To cope, these are the things which have worked, and are working, for me:
See your GP
See your GP to confirm it's menopause. Knowing it's just a bunch of tiny, cheeky cockatoos making me feel these feelings made me feel much better about it. Phew, I'm not actually turning into a bitch.
Step up the mind games
I may have to read the cockatoo's notes but I sure as fuck don't have to subscribe to their nastiness. When it's not appropriate to scream "faaaarkkkkk offffff!!!!!!!" I put the notes on a little white cloud and watch them float away. When that doesn't work :
Meditation has helped me HUGELY. Since menopause I get super flustered and anxious in certain situations. But it's rare that we can just immediately remove ourselves from a situation and head off for a walk, or go to our bedroom and meditate - we're driving or working or in the middle of cooking dinner, or have kids we cant leave alone.... so something meditation has taught me is, in the moments when the cockatoos are squawking and we can't escape - breathe in 2, 3, hold, 2, 3, breathe out 2, 3, nice and slow, as many times as necessary. No one even knows when I'm doing it but by god it calms me down and gets me off the edge of the cliff.
Staying hydrated REALLY helps. Aim to drink at minimum 3 l of water each day. It's the one thing which I can say eases pretty much all symptoms.
Pack away your turtle necks and ship in easy to take on and off natural fibre garments. Every layer needs to be able to be worn on it's own because even on the coldest day there'll be moments when you're in a singlet. That crappy old one you've had for years which you used to be able to get away with wearing under your warm layers is highly likely to be on display at some point during the day.
Be plant based (as much as you can manage)
It's really important to have a balanced diet featuring as much unprocessed, plant based, whole food as possible. I am a sample size of one, but I've really benefited from a vegan (well 98% vegan) diet. While not scientifically proven, there has been quite a lot of research in this area, and like most things to do with our bodies, diet plays a big part.
A plant based diet usually features loads of phytoestrogen - naturally occuring plant oestrogens which produce a similar chemical structure to our own body's estrogen, and can in a very scientific way can help regulate our own wildly fluctuating levels of estrogen (read the full scientific explanation here and an excellent article on naturally managing menopause symptoms here).
If you are affected by any of the above menopausal symptoms you may want to punch me in the face for suggesting you go vegan and that my friend, I totally understand. If that's the case, maybe just try including some of these foods in your diet:
Unsurprisingly, exercise also plays a significant part in regulating the negative effects of the whole process of menopause. For the past month I've been away from my usual routine and my pilates studio. I haven't been as active as I usually am and I've definitely noticed an increase in intensity and frequency of my flushes. It's impossible for me to ignore the relationship between my level of fitness and physical activity and the frequency and intensity of symptoms.
Being active does not eliminate symptoms but it does really help - on both the physical and the mental fronts.
Consider taking a few supplements
Iron, magnesium, Zinc, Vitamin B6 & B12, and Omega 3 have all be proven to help with menopausal symptoms and generally increase well-being throughout all stages of our menopause journey's.
And that's currently where I'm at! I hope this has been helpful for you.
If you're on the same menopausal journey, please comment below with any tips you have for management of symptoms.
If you'd like a deeper dive into any of the above, please also let me know. There's more to come.
And if you're someone who is not menopausal, but has questions, fire away!
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