The menopause is the time when a woman’s periods permanently stop. The age this happens varies. However, it’s usually between the ages of 40 and 60. The average age for women to reach the menopause in the UK is 51.
The menopause happens when your ovaries stop producing eggs. Your ovaries make the hormone oestrogen, so when they stop functioning there is a drop in the levels of oestrogen in your blood. This fall in hormone level disrupts your menstrual cycle and causes the symptoms associated with menopause.
The menopause usually happens gradually. For a few years before the menopause, your periods may become irregular, happening more or less often than they used to. You may also have slightly heavier periods. This stage is called the perimenopause and can last for about four years.
When it has been a year since your last period, you’re said to be through the menopause, or post-menopausal. You can still become pregnant while going through the menopause, so it’s important to keep using contraception for one year after your last period if you're over 50 and for two years if you're under 50.
When the menopause happens before the age of 40, it's considered premature (early) menopause. If you have an early menopause, there is a chance that you may still ovulate intermittently, so your GP may recommend that you continue to use contraception.
The menopause usually happens gradually. Your periods may become irregular and infrequent before they stop completely. You may also have other symptoms. Some of these can begin up to six years before your final menstrual period and continue for several years after your last period. Symptoms of the menopause can include:
Your symptoms may be worse if the menopause happens suddenly (for example if you have your ovaries removed or after chemotherapy).
The drop in oestrogen levels during and after the menopause causes your bones to lose calcium. This increases your risk of osteoporosis (thinning of the bones).
Your risk of having cardiovascular disease and urinary incontinence also increases.
The menopause is a natural part of ageing. All women go through it.
However, there are some things that can cause the menopause to happen early, such as:
Your GP will ask about your symptoms and your medical history. Your GP will often be able to make a diagnosis based on this information.
If you’re under 45, your GP may ask you to have a blood test. This is to measure the level of follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) and oestrogen in your blood. The test can help confirm if your symptoms are caused by the menopause.
Take practical steps to deal with hot flushes by keeping cool and avoiding possible triggers such as spicy foods, caffeine, smoking or stress.
Regular exercise may help improve some symptoms of the menopause, including hot flushes and night sweats, difficulty sleeping and mood changes. Pelvic floor exercises can help strengthen your pelvic muscles and improve your bladder control. Physical activity that stresses the bones, such as running and walking, can help strengthen your bones and reduce your risk of osteoporosis. Physical activity can also help protect against heart disease and stroke. You should aim to do 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week.
A healthy diet can help protect your body against some of the long-term effects of the menopause. It’s important to balance your diet with foods from each food group. Because the menopause causes you to lose calcium in your bones, the foods you eat can help protect you from osteoporosis. Try to include two to three portions of calcium-rich foods in your diet daily, such as 200ml of semi-skimmed milk, or a small yoghurt. Your GP may advise you take a calcium supplement. It's also important that you stay a healthy weight for your height.
Vitamin D is important for your bone health. Vitamin D is produced naturally by your body when your skin is exposed to sunlight and can also be obtained from some foods, such as oily fish. You may get enough vitamin D during summer by spending frequent short spells in the sun without wearing sunscreen (the exact time you need is different for everyone, but is typically only a few minutes in the middle of the day). However, do not let your skin redden. If you don't get much sun exposure and particularly during winter months, taking up to 25 micrograms of vitamin D (two high-strength 12.5 microgram capsules) can help to make sure you get enough.
Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your supplements. Talk to your GP before taking vitamin D supplements if you are taking diuretics (water tablets) or have a history of kidney stones or kidney failure.
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can be prescribed to help some of the symptoms of the menopause, such as night sweats and hot flushes, or the symptoms of vaginal dryness. HRT can help reduce your risk of osteoporosis but only after four or five years of use.
HRT helps to restore the level of the circulating hormone oestrogen. It usually includes a combination of oestrogen and progesterone, rather than just oestrogen. This is because taking oestrogen on its own can thicken the lining of your womb and increase your risk of endometrial cancer. It’s safe to take oestrogen-only HRT if you have had an operation to remove your womb (a hysterectomy).
HRT comes in tablets, patches, skin gels and implants. Vaginal creams, pessaries or a vaginal ring may be helpful for vaginal problems such as dryness. HRT is generally recommended to be taken at the lowest effective dose for a short duration and reviewed at least yearly. Symptoms can come back in some women for a short time after stopping HRT.
HRT can have side-effects, including vaginal bleeding, tender breasts, water retention, changes in your mood, feeling sick and headaches. Changing the type and dose of HRT may reduce these.
Taking HRT for a long time may slightly increase your risk of having a stroke, developing breast or ovarian cancer and blood clots (deep vein thrombosis). Contrary to popular belief, HRT has shown to have no effect on body weight.
Talk to your GP to help you understand the risks and benefits of taking HRT.
Depending on your symptoms, your GP may suggest other treatment options. For example, to treat hot flushes and night sweats, your GP may suggest the following.
If you lose your libido and have vaginal dryness, vaginal lubricants may help. Or your GP may suggest you take a medicine that contains the hormone testosterone.
There is little scientific evidence for complementary therapies improving symptoms of the menopause.
For example, there isn't enough evidence for doctors to recommend taking phytoestrogens, which are naturally occurring oestrogen-like compounds found in plants. Dietary sources include roasted soy beans, soy milk, tofu and miso. Some studies have found that one type, called isoflavone, may reduce hot flushes, but others have found no effect or no evidence that they don’t increase your risks or side-effects in the same way oestrogen medicines do.
There is little evidence to show that herbal remedies such as black cohosh, red clover, angelica and evening primrose oil, work. Herbal remedies are medicines and can have side-effects and interact with other medicines. For example, there have been reports of black cohosh causing damage to your liver. Ask your GP or pharmacist for advice if you plan to try any herbal treatments.
Other complementary therapies that promote relaxation, exercise, and wellbeing (such as aromatherapy, acupuncture, yoga and reflexology) may help reduce hot flushes in some women, but there is limited scientific evidence.
If you feel depressed or anxious, your GP may recommend counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy. Support groups can help deal with the emotional aspects of menopause.
If you’re considering a complementary therapy, ask your GP or pharmacist for advice.
The menopause affects every woman differently. You may not have any symptoms at all or they may be severe. Discuss your personal circumstances with your GP to ensure that you get the treatment and support that you need.
Reviewed by Natalie Heaton, Bupa Health Information Team, 09 September 2013.
For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.
For sources and links to further information, see Resources.
This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.
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