Never mind hot flushes, middle-age spread and sleepless nights – the change of life brings other decidedly unpleasant symptoms. Author Liz Earle offers help in a new book on this challenging time in a woman’s life.
Hot flushes, sleepless nights, mood swings, weight gain – anyone going through menopause will be all too familiar with these bad guys of the change.
But there’s loads more to the Big M than these oft-talked-about trials and tribulations.
In her comprehensive and enlightening new book, The Good Menopause Guide, wellness guru Liz Earle takes an honest look at some of the other nasty niggles many women experience at this trying yet inevitable stage of life.
Hair today, gone tomorrow
Perhaps you first notice that gradually each strand is losing volume, is finer, weaker, less glossy, and you can’t grow it as long as you once did.
You may also discern a receding hairline at the front or temples and just less hair altogether.
Oestrogen allows hair to thrive in a growing phase and the longer this phase, the longer we’re able to grow our hair. So it makes sense that dwindling levels of oestrogen result in a shorter growth cycle and the loss of hair before it reaches its optimal length.
Not only is our main female hormone receding, menopause can trigger a rise in androgens, male hormones that exacerbate thinning of hair similar to the early stages of male pattern hair loss while promoting excess facial and body hair.
This facial hair can be in the form of a light or dark “down” that covers the bottom half of the face and neck, or it may be the odd wiry hair that springs out from the chin or upper lip area – miraculously, it would seem, overnight.
Try a new hairstyle
Many women find a liberating short crop gives hair a new lease of life and embrace their natural colour and the freedom from hair that needs styling and high maintenance.
Of course, the reverse is also true and there are few easier or swifter ways to reverse the outward signs of ageing than covering grey hair with semi-permanent tints or soft blonde highlights woven between the grey (my own preferred method of disguise).
Avoid an “Oh no!” situation when returning from work or a social gathering to discover a very visible wiry chin hair. Invest in a well-lit magnifying mirror and super-strong bathroom lighting. Keep a good pair of tweezers permanently at hand to eliminate stray hairs as soon as they appear. More long-lasting solutions to this problem include laser treatment, waxing, depilatory cream, threading and electrolysis.
Dose yourself up
Your hair will thrive on a diet full of protein and essential vitamins plus a daily dose of silica, biotin and kelp (seaweed) to help strengthen it.
You may feel your iron supplement days are almost over, but the opposite is true – iron gives us energy, preventing anaemia and warding off feelings of fatigue, not to mention promoting better hair growth.
Look after lashes
Eyelashes can become sparser too. Applying several layers of a lash-conditioning mascara is an effective way of boosting volume.
Don’t be tempted to try the eyelash “regeneration” gels and serums, which as well as being very expensive have been found to trigger eye irritations and even cause eyelashes to fall out.
Another option is to have eyelashes dyed – it’s a real boost to look quite awake in the mirror first thing.
Could you repeat that?
Hearing loss should be monitored by an audiologist – especially as research shows that 40% of those over 50 have some kind of hearing loss (and 70% by the age of 70).
Oestrogen has a protective effect on the auditory system and a study in Sweden revealed menopause acts as a trigger for relatively rapid age-related hearing decline in healthy women, starting in the left ear.
Protect hearing as much as possible by avoiding noisy environments and wearing ear protection on planes and at music concerts.
Play It Down is a free iPhone and iPad app that allows users to assess their hearing ability and noisy environments.
Confidence can really take a knock if you feel muddle-headed and your memory seems worryingly bad.
Why is it that forgetfulness is such an issue during menopause? Oestrogen regulates levels of the hormone cortisol, which in turn affects brain chemicals, so as oestrogen levels dip, the control it has over cortisol can be erratic, resulting in short-term memory lapses.
It’s common not to feel (or want to be) as engaged as once before; overcome by a sense of boredom, the ability to concentrate or multitask also wanes. You may find yourself asking: am I becoming lazier? Is this what old age is going to be like? Do I have early-onset dementia?
It’s reassuring to remember these are common symptoms and many are the stories of doing ridiculously silly things like putting dishwasher tablets in the washing machine, trying to cancel a bank card already cancelled the day before and forgetting where we parked the car 20 minutes earlier.
While we know that falling hormone levels can contribute to these symptoms, it’s also important to acknowledge and give ourselves credit for dealing with these seismic changes at what’s an incredibly busy time of life for many of us: having a responsible job, parenting commitments and possibly volunteering and community projects.
I look different
I’m fascinated by the approach US gynaecologist Dr Rebecca Booth, author of The Venus Week, takes with osteoporosis, common among ageing women.
When she wants patients to take the risk of it seriously, she just tells them osteoporosis will affect their face too.
“They’re usually shocked and think it affects only the larger bones in the skeleton such as the spine, hips and legs – but not the face,” Dr Booth explains. “The orbital bone that encircles our eyes is a central feature of the face and as bone density declines with the ageing process, our orbits widen a bit, causing our eyes to sink ever so slightly, resulting in dark shadows and a loss of volume below the eyes. We focus on the wrinkles but the framework of the bone is vital to support our skin.”
Protecting jaw bones and teeth
Far too many women don’t recognise some of their symptoms as being connected with menopause and oral health is a serious area of concern. There can be quite dramatic changes even if you have no history of dental issues. As oestrogen levels decrease, bones weaken and there may be bone loss in the jaw. An American Dental Association report noted that postmenopausal women with osteoporosis needed new dentures more often after 50 than those without osteoporosis.
Common symptoms often reported to dentists are sore mouth, burning sensations, altered taste perception and a dry mouth. One reason for this is there are oestrogen receptors in the mouth and when the hormone declines, not as much saliva is produced. Yet another excellent reason to keep hydrated and to make sure you always have a jug of filtered tap water at hand.
Inflammation and declining hormone levels make gums more sensitive and prone to recession, which leaves teeth more vulnerable to decay. Bleeding gums are a cause for concern as it may be a sign of gingivitis, so do see a dental hygienist or dentist who’ll advise on how to prevent further deterioration. Drinking probiotic yoghurt could also help maintain healthy gums.
Studies have shown that overall body bone loss may contribute to tooth loss in otherwise healthy mouths, which is a great incentive to crank up your dental hygiene by brushing teeth twice a day and flossing once a day, plus visiting the dentist twice a year and seeing the hygienist. One US study showed that women on hormone replacement therapy were 24% less likely to suffer a loss of teeth, which is encouraging news.
It’s windy in here
I’m afraid there’s another delightful symptom of menopause that needs to be tackled. Thanks to our hormones being in flux we may produce more stomach gas – which means we may pass more wind. Worrying about it isn’t conducive to enjoying carefree sex but there are a few solutions to try. This process of excessive gas kicks off during perimenopause, when the balance of good and bad bacteria involved in the digestive process is disrupted by the fluctuating levels of oestrogen and progesterone. When bacteria in the gut is balanced healthy digestion occurs, but when patterns are altered the stomach reacts by increasing the production of gas.
Obviously, the optimal solution is to balance hormone levels but there are other practical ways to help reduce stomach gas.
Eat smaller portions more frequently.
Chew food more slowly. This will break it down into smaller chunks and allow the digestive enzymes in saliva to work efficiently.
Take a probiotic supplement to boost. The levels of beneficial gut bacteria – which is helpful for all-round good health in any case.
Choose a capsule or powder that contains several different strains of beneficial microflora with at least six to 10 varieties.
Exercise regularly. With the increased flow of blood through the body, the digestive system is stimulated to work more efficiently.
Pass my glasses
Eye checks will detect changes in vision such as presbyopia (otherwise known as “old sight”), which results in the need for reading glasses and usually coincides with perimenopause. It’s a good time to talk to your optician if you wear contact lenses as you may experience reduced tolerance to them due to “dry eye syndrome” during perimenopause, which can cause eye irritation and itchiness.
You may need to start wearing your glasses more and limit use of contact lenses. Why? Falling hormones affect the ocular tissues and the production of tears.
You may also notice symptoms such as blurred vision, burning eyes and a sense of having something in the eye.
Keep a bottle of lubricating eye drops in your bag – especially if staring at a computer for any length of time.
Invest in a pair of good-quality sunglasses to help protect against cataracts and age-related macular degeneration.
Make it a habit to wear sunglasses on bright and windy days to avoid eyes feeling dry and sensitive.
Those who drink a probiotic yoghurt daily often report improvements in eye health.