I was being interviewed by Kevin Guthrie at Newark Radio for his Health and Wellbeing podcast earlier this week and he asked me what advice I would give to men who wanted to know how to support the women in their life going through menopause.
It’s a question I get asked often when I deliver menopause awareness training to businesses so I thought it might be useful to put together a short article with some tips to help avoid incurring the wrath of those mad menopausal women you’re surrounded by!
OK, first off, I jest. They only appear to be mad on the outside, they’re not really.
Underneath all those raging hormones lives the same calm, caring, sharp-thinking, organiser of everything and everyone that you know and love. She’s just dealing with a hug roller coaster of changes in her body that quite frankly, even she doesn’t fully understand.
But, I hear you ask, if she doesn’t know what’s going on, how on earth am I supposed to know how to help?
And in all honesty it is a fair question.
My first bit of advice would be to educate yourself with some quality, evidence based knowledge – just be careful not to become a know-it-all, remember you’ll only ever know what it feels like in theory (just saying!).
I’ll share a few of the basics of what menopause is and the symptoms and treatment options here but you will probably want to dig a bit deeper and I’ll signpost you to some good sources of information as we go along and at the end.
What is Menopause and Why Has it Stolen My Wife?
Now the woman in your life may not be your wife, it may be your partner, your sister, your mother, a good friend or any one of many other relationships but none of that would have made for a snappy sub-heading. So please humour me.
Menopause is the day in a woman’s life that she officially stops being classed as reproductive having gone 12 consecutive months without a menstrual period. The usual age for this to occur is anywhere between 45 and 55 with the average age in the UK being 51.
That said she may go through early menopause either due to a condition known as Premature Ovarian Insufficiency (POI) which affects about 1% of women under the age of 40 and can actually affect women in their teens upwards, or due to surgical or medical intervention. Removal of the womb and/or ovaries can result in the early onset of menopause, as can certain medical treatments such as chemotherapy.
The normal fertile years leading up to that day of menopause are called pre-menopause and the years following until a woman dies are called post-menopause.
However, if you’re living with a woman who seems to have had a personality transplant of late, chances are she in the period leading up to menopause known as perimenopause.
Perimenopause literally means around the time of menopause and refers to the point in a woman’s life from which the ovaries begin their journey towards no longer producing eggs. This perimenopausal period begins usually about 4-6 years before menopause but may start as early as 10 years before.
It is during this perimenopausal phase that women tend to become symptomatic. And there are rather a lot of symptoms that she might experience. In fact there are over 30 symptoms attributable to menopause and which can affect women physically, emotionally and psychologically.
Thankfully not all women will be symptomatic, with about 25% of women sailing through menopause symptom free (they’re the lucky ones!). However the majority of women will experience some degree of symptoms which could come and go and change over the time of their perimenopause with about 25% at the other end of the scale experiencing severe and often debilitating symptoms.
What Are the Most Common Symptoms of Menopause?
When we think of menopausal women we usually associate them with hot flushes, mood swings and night sweats. However symptoms can also include dry, itchy skin, headaches and bladder infections.
Some of the symptoms she may be struggling with are less easy to discuss. Things like heavy or erratic periods, ‘flooding’, vaginal dryness and vaginal irritation caused by changes to the tissue around the vagina and vulva. If you’re finding this uncomfortable to read, I can only say imagine how uncomfortable it must be to live with!
Other symptoms include memory problems, sleep disturbances, brain fog, poor concentration, fatigue, low mood, hair loss, anxiety, low self-confidence, weight gain and a loss of libido.
The culprit here is the hormone oestrogen. As women enter perimenopause their oestrogen levels can fluctuate dramatically day to day. She has oestrogen receptors throughout her whole body hence why a drop in oestrogen can have such varied and diverse implications.
Declining progesterone and testosterone levels also muddy the waters and since the human body is always looking for balance and equilibrium, fluctuations in the sex hormones has a knock on effect on other hormones such as our stress and mood hormones which further exacerbate menopausal symptoms.
What Can She Do To Help Her Menopause?
In essence there are 3 ways in which to manage menopausal symptoms. The obvious one, albeit often the hardest one to achieve, is a healthy lifestyle.
Nutrition, exercise, sleep and stress can all impact menopausal symptoms. Eating a varied diet full of fresh fruits and vegetables, healthy fats and protein can help to ensure she (and you) are getting all the nutrients needed to function optimally. Managing weight and limiting alcohol and caffeine can help with hot flushes and regular exercise can hep with weight as well as some of the psychological and emotional symptoms.
Getting enough rest and sleep can also help although insomnia is quite common during perimenopause. Managing stress and taking time for self-care is hugely important. The odd spa day here and there would definitely get you into her good books 😊
The second option to help with symptoms are natural and complementary therapies. There are a number of herbal medicines that may help, however if this is the route she wants to go down it’s worth consulting a registered herbalist as some preparations can interfere with other medications. Supplements such as vitamin B12 and vitamin D3 will also help.
In addition, many women find complementary therapies such as essential oils, reflexology, acupuncture and hypnotherapy can help relieve symptoms. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy has some good evidence backing up its effectiveness in helping with both physical and emotional symptoms and a bit of 1:1 coaching might also help since mindset plays a big part in how women deal with their menopause transition.
Finally we have the medical route. Hormone Replacement Therapy is possibly one of the most controversial and misunderstood medications going and I could probably write a whole book just on this one subject alone.
Many women are terrified of taking HRT due to the mass hysteria caused by some rather ill-informed reporting on the part of our national press. Like any medication HRT carries risks and benefits, however for the most part reports about HRT have focused on the risks without actually balancing them against the benefits.
In short, the current guidance from the British Menopause Society and the guidance given to GPs via NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) is that the benefits of HRT outweigh the risks for the majority of women under the age of 60 starting HRT within 10 years of menopause.
Studies have consistently shown that HRT is beneficial in treating menopausal symptoms over placebos and for many women the improvement in quality of life is literally life changing.
Of course, the decision to take HRT is a completely personal one, but understanding the facts can help her make an informed decision. I would strongly urge anyone worried about the safety of HRT to visit the patient arm of the British Menopause Society called Women’s Health Concern to get some up to date, evidence based information. Menopause Matters is another very informative and quality source of help.
What Can I Do to Help?
As I said at the start of this article, the best thing you can do is to educate yourself so that you have a better understanding of what she is likely to be going through.
Hopefully this article has helped a bit, but you might also want to dig a little deeper. You could pick up Ruth Devlin’s fabulous little book called ‘Men, Let’s Talk Menopause – What’s going on and what you can do about it’. It’s a comprehensive guide but easy to read and short – you can finish it in your lunch break (then leave it on the table for your male colleagues to read 😊).
You can also help by learning to bite your tongue. I know it can seem like she’s being totally unreasonable, irrational and downright awkward, but it’s really not personal. If she could help it she would.
Finally, please don’t try to fix her. She’s not broken. She just needs a bit of support, a helping hand around the house, a bit of time to herself, a shoulder to cry on and someone to listen without judgement.
If you can do that, you’ll be helping enormously.
And finally, remember this is a period of transition. She’s still in there and you will eventually get her back. Hang in there!
If you’re employed you could speak to your HR department and see about getting some menopause awareness training brought in to help raise understanding for everyone – male and female alike. If they like the idea, ask them to get in touch firstname.lastname@example.org 😊