Life beyond the hot flashes
That much-dreaded journey to menopause need not be all misery if you make some simple but healthy changes in lifestyle
Menopause marks the end of the monthly menstrual cycle for women. It’s the time when the ovaries cease to function and the woman can no longer reproduce. Though it is a biological phenomenon, it represents a major transition in a woman’s life and is often accompanied by very individual physiological and emotional changes. This makes it complex to understand.
Menopuase is not a sudden phenomenon, but rather a gradual process. There is no definite age or timeline that can be authoritatively assigned to it. Most women reach menopause between the ages of 45 and 55, the average age being around 51.
Some reach menopause before 40 or 45. The transitional period leading to menopause is referred to as ‘perimenopause’ and the period after menopause has set in is called ‘postmenopause’.
This journey is different for each woman and the onset of symptoms can be up to 10 years before menopause finally sets in. Medical and surgical conditions (chemotherapy and radiation therapies for certain types of cancers, hysterectomy, etc.) can influence its onset.
Perimenopausal symptoms typically include hot flashes, night sweats, aches and pains, headaches, skin dryness and itching, tiredness (could be result of disturbed sleep), frequent urination/ incontinence, increased risk of urinary tract infection, vaginal dryness, reduced libido, weight gain (especially around the abdomen) and worsening of adult acne. Since small amounts of the male hormone testosterone are still being produced by the body, this could lead to some hair growth on the chin, upper lip, chest or abdomen.
Cognitive and emotional changes such as forgetfulness, irritability and mood swings may also occur. These are likely a complex response to all factors brought on by hormonal fluctuations at the physical level (causing physical discomfort) and at a much deeper mental level (such as lack of self-esteem). This period could also coincide with other stressful life events inducing emotional symptoms that should not be trivialised.
Long-term risks of menopause could include osteoporosis (thinning of bones/ reduced bone density) leading to fractures and increased risk of heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke.
While different women experience and respond to symptoms differently, there are certain practices that help in management of menopause.
Diet: Incorporate a wide variety of fresh fruits and vegetables (preferably seasonal), fibre-rich foods, cereals, whole grains, small portions of lean meats, chicken or fish and adequate amounts of calcium and Vitamin D in your diet. Eat low-dairy foods (look for dairy-free substitutes if required, preferably guided by a good nutritionist). Increase intake of fluids. Reduce caffeine and alcohol intake.
Exercise: Regular physical activity and exercise play an important role in maintaining good health, bone density and in mitigating unpleasant symptoms. Aim for at least 30-45 minutes most days of the week. Resistance exercises are especially beneficial to help prevent osteoporosis. Exercise releases ‘feel good’ pheromones that contribute to a feeling of general well-being, relaxation and positivity. If you are used to higher or more intense levels of activity, there is no definite reason to give them up now. Just pay attention to your body and what it tells you. Dynamically re-adjust as required.
Avoid smoking: It increases all the long-term risks mentioned.
Get regular pap and breast checks: These could be performed generally every two years or as recommended by your doctor.
Hormone replacement therapy: Because hormone levels may fluctuate rapidly, sometimes on a daily level, for individual women, any treatment should be undertaken strictly under doctor’s guidance. These treatments are not without risks, so the need, duration and dosage need strict justification and monitoring.
Natural remedies: Nature provides a wide variety of herbs and plants that form the basis of several natural therapies. However, it is safer and recommended to consult a licensed/ registered practitioner rather than go by hearsay. If following any other treatments or medications, it is prudent to be better informed to avoid unpleasant side effects.
Think positive: Understand what your body is going through, accept it as nature’s cycle and keep a positive outlook. Our thoughts affect our bodies so express your feelings and concerns with your doctor, family and friends. Simply sharing can often make a positive impact.
Vani B. Pahwa is an exercise and rehab specialist, corporate wellness coach, and foot and gait analyst.