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Goop aside, Gwyneth is right – we need to talk more about the menopause

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Last week, Gwyneth Paltrow revealed that she is in the early stages of menopause and called for more discussion around it. Currently going through the menopause herself, Alyson Walsh agrees

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By Alyson Walsh on

Last week, Gwyneth Paltrow announced that she is going through the early stages of menopause. In a video posted to her Goop website, the actor-cum-wellness guru said that, at 46, she was currently in perimenopause and spoke about her experiences so far. “I can feel hormonal shifts happening, the moods, you’re all of a sudden furious for no reason…” she said, while explaining that she’s experienced an increase in sweating.

“I think menopause gets a really bad rap and needs a bit of rebranding,” said Paltrow during her video, going on to express her desire for there to be more of an aspirational face of menopause within society. Kerching. Hot Flush Yoga, anyone? While I don’t profess to have a lot in common with Paltrow (and cannot help but think that her statement is in part a canny marketing ploy to shift the Madame Ovary perimenopause supplements currently sold by Goop) I am going through the menopause and I agree that our societal view of it needs to change. And we need to talk about it more.

I never really thought about the menopause until it happened to me aged 50. The general lack of education, awareness and conversation surrounding menopausal symptoms, and how they affect women, meant that I wasn’t prepared at all. With so little information readily available, I have had to do a lot of fact-finding for myself. An experience that rings true with most of my friends.

In the UK, the average age to start the menopause is 51. However, it can typically start anywhere between 45 and 55. And according to the NHS, one in 100 women will experience early menopause. Whichever way you look at it, that’s a lot of women at any one time going through The Change, and I feel strongly that we shouldn’t go through it feeling isolated like our mothers' generation. We know that shared knowledge is power, but we want more. More medical research and informed, supportive GPs, so that we don’t have to rely on passing information between ourselves like black-market spivs.

"A public health message would be helpful," says Professor Myra Hunter, emeritus professor of clinical health psychology at King’s College London, who is about to publish a new research paper on menopause at work and has contributed to a TV programme with Mariella Frostrup due to be aired later this year. "The aim is to have balanced pro-women attitudes, so that women are informed about evidence-based treatments and don’t expect to have a terrible time."

I feel strongly that we shouldn’t go through menopause feeling isolated like our mothers' generation

Fortunately, doctors, academic researchers, MPs, journalists, bloggers (like Henpicked) and well, Gwyneth, are starting to look forward, make a noise and make a difference. In a debate in parliament last month, Tory MP Rachel Maclean spoke of her experience of menopause, gaining cross-party support from both male and female members, in a bid to increase education and awareness. There is also currently a petition calling on Penny Mordaunt and other ministers responsible for health, work and education to raise the awareness of menopause and provide more information. You can sign here.

The more we talk about it and provide solid information and advice, the less scary and lonely it will become. Menopause isn’t a taboo, it’s a fact of life and it’s something that we will all experience. So with that in mind, here are five things that I’ve discovered about menopause.

YOU WILL FEEL HOT, TIRED AND ANGRY AND THAT’S OK

Menopause is a mental, emotional and physical change. Crashing around feeling hot, tired, angry and self-critical, a lot of the time. "It makes you feel like a psycho-killer," one of my friends, who has just started using HRT, said recently.

Over the past year, I’ve found HRT (hormone replacement therapy) patches have reduced the hot flush factor and made me feel calmer. There are many different types of HRT and also different doses – and quite a few women I know are successfully using this approach. Others prefer non-hormonal methods, natural supplements such as black cohosh, and acupuncture. "It is important that women have an individualised consultation and receive the optimal type and dose of HRT for them," advises GP and menopause expert Dr Louise Newson. "The current menopause guidelines are all clear that the benefits –  including reduction of the risk of heart disease and osteoporosis – of taking HRT outweigh any risks for the majority of women." For more information on HRT, click here.

FORGETTING THINGS IS NORMAL

This is related to oestrogen depletion. Sometimes I forget really simple words and people's names, or find getting out of the house in the morning takes an immense effort. 

Midlife is stressful, we are under a lot of social and financial pressures – balancing work, caring for children and elderly relatives. "Stress makes menopause worse; menopause symptoms are stressful," explains professor Myra Hunter. Basically, we need to put the "pause" into menopause. Give ourselves a break. Look after our health, exercise, eat well and then introduce a half an hour period every day where we literally do nothing. "When you’re in that situation, it’s hard to unpick. Give more time to yourself: mindfulness and relaxation can help," continues Hunter, "and from 55 onwards your general mood improves." (Alyson Walsh aged 54 and three-quarters punches the air.)

MENOPAUSAL WOMEN DON’T ALL WEAR LILAC CARDIGANS

Though advertisements targeted at the older demographic suggest otherwise, menopausal women do not all dress in shades of lilac and greige and share a relentless enthusiasm for the waterfall cardigan. Our body shape changes during menopause – these days I have a flabby middle and no bum. Now that oestrogen has left the building our metabolic rate slows down – we burn less fat and gain weight around the middle, this combined with a reduction in muscle mass and feeling tired means we’re less likely to want to exercise. And increased stress levels trigger the adrenal glands to produce the stress hormone cortisol that can increase food cravings.

In my early fifties, to accommodate this, I switched from signature grey marl T-shirts to open-necked, oversized shirts (try Arket, COS and MHL) and silk blouses (Winser London, & Other Stories). Looser garments in natural fabrics are the perfect way to keep cool and cover the flab, but I am still wearing my beloved jeans. High-waisted Mom jeans and a not-too-slouchy boyfriend-style are the new favourites, and are particularly useful for tucking everything in. MiH is good for both – try the Mimi and Chloe styles – and I’m loving Levi’s 501s again. I’ll wear a lightweight blazer over a silk top (Winser London’s v-neck top is a grown-up take on the T-shirt) and sporty trousers or posh joggers. And even though I have to go to the loo more frequently (lower oestrogen levels affect the elasticity of urinary tract walls), I practically live in a jumpsuit; both Hush and Baukjen do lovely, lightweight versions.  

Fortunately there are plenty of style heroines of a certain age around to inspire us such as Emmanuelle Alt, Jenna Lyons, Tilda Swinton, Michelle Obama, Lucinda Chambers, Ruth Chapman, Thandie Newton, Bella Freud and Susie Cave.

YOU MIGHT HAVE TO STOP DRINKING WINE (BUT THERE’S ALWAYS GIN)

Reducing alcohol consumption is recommended during menopause – as if feeling angry all the time and shit about yourself wasn’t bad enough. But by relaxing the blood vessels and bringing more blood to the skin’s surface, wine, in particular, can trigger hot flushes, disturb sleep patterns and cause night sweats. To avoid a hot flush fest, I tend to drink less wine or just drink wine with food and plenty of water. Late-night drinking has been replaced by an early evening gin and tonic or a couple of beers. Better still, meet friends for weekend lunch and have a drink then instead.

THERE’S NO TWO WAYS ABOUT IT, YOUR VAGINA WILL GET DRY

One of the first symptoms I noticed – and the worst of all (in my opinion) is vaginal dryness – or atrophy, to give it its proper medical name. Reduction in oestrogen levels affects the walls of the vagina, they become thinner, dryer and less elastic. This can be painful and itchy and lubrication is required during sex. Feeling hot and bothered and wondering if my sex life is over, I arrange yet another 10-minute consultation with the doctor. Cramming in menopausal symptoms like nobody’s business, I manage to mumble my way through the list on my phone, including what I simply refer to as dryness. I come out feeling delighted that I am no longer part of what Frankie (Lily Tomlin) in Netflix’s Grace & Frankie refers to as the "dry, silent majority".

Kathy Abernethy, a menopause specialist nurse and author of Menopause: The One-Stop Guide, has been working with healthcare professionals and encouraging them to start the "intimate dryness" conversation. She suggests that part of the problem is that women are embarrassed to talk about the issue, so they buy lubricants and products that don’t work and think that they can’t solve the problem. "If you go through menopause at the usual time, it’s not surprising that you need a lubricant. You just have to build this into your routine," she says. Recommending that we ditch bubble bath and bath oils that can aggravate dryness, she continues, "Sylk and Yes VM natural vaginal moisturisers are both really good, they do the job – but you might need vaginal oestrogen, too. Vaginal dryness is not like hot flushes, it won’t get better on its own." For more information read this.

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@thatsntmyage

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