The Chinese call it “A Woman’s Second Spring”.
Westerners call it “The Change”!
I call it “The Hell of my Forties”.
YES – I am referring to the menopause. Or to be more specific in my case, perimenopause. It’s the lovely period leading up to the time when our ovaries shrivel up for good and resemble nothing but a pair of dried raisins attached to our ever-thinning uterus.
Today I turn 46. It’s strange to see that number written down, as it confirms that I am closer to 50 with every passing day and yet it doesn’t seem possible. I still feel 21 in my head, my body acts like a 30 year old and my outlook on life remains young – yet I can tell my body is changing and it hasn’t been the smoothest of sailing.
Entering my forties was a breeze, I was fit and healthy and in better condition both physically and mentally than I was in my twenties. I felt awesome! Then two years ago, something happened. I started to feel unwell. I felt as though my whole equilibrium had shifted, I started to experience vertigo that left me unable to walk properly and sometimes not even able to get out of bed. This in turn lead to vision problems and the feeling that my head was being held in a vice, followed by bouts of nausea and vomiting. Each of these episodes would last me three to five days and leave me utterly exhausted. It was a hellish time for me as my new business had just started to flourish and I wanted to invest a lot of time and energy into it, yet most of the time I felt so discombobulated, I could barely make myself a cup of tea. After a year and a half of tests and visits to ENTs and neurologists, it was determined that I was suffering from migraines with aura. The reason: hormones. After specific bloodwork, my gynecologist confirmed that my estrogen levels had plummeted, the result of which was that I was entering perimenopause.
This was the start of my journey and honestly, it has only gotten worse! I also know that when it’s over, when the bright light of menopause (a year without periods) arrives, these symptoms will subside.
This is not a sob story but rather a chance for me to start talking about menopause and the effect it has on women. I have spoken to numerous peers, clients and fellow trainers about this, and it has been determined, beyond doubt, that everything our mothers ever told us about “the change” was crap! Now I appreciate that every women will have their own experience, and not everybody will suffer; in fact some women float through this period with a joyous glow on their face – lucky ladies!! Still, we need to talk about this, we need to be open and share our trials and tribulations.
This is the first of a six part series where I will be interviewing specialists in the fields of nutrition, gynecology, physical therapy and personal training amongst a few, to get experts’ perspectives on this confusing time of a woman’s life. Before I dive in, I thought it would be prudent to share my experiences so far.
My Own Personal Perimenopause Hell
See above. Yeah I now know how to manage them, and life is so much better, but it took a lot of experimenting with foods, meds and relaxation methods to reduce the stress that often contributes to this multi-faceted infliction. I still suffer, but with less intensity, knowing that most of the time migraines stop when we reach menopause.
Tied in with mental confusion and clumsiness, makes me a joy to be around. I sometimes even forget the most basic words so I have to make a list of things to do every single day otherwise I would remember nothing. This is probably the most frustrating aspect of perimenopause for me as I feel as though I appear stupid to others. I know this is a common feeling among menopausal women. There are ways to help with our cognitive skills as we age in general and this is an area we will explore in more detail.
Probably just fed up with feeling unwell with migraines, I hit a period of time during my second year where I started to feel numb, bored, lifeless and utterly fatigued. Initially I thought it was my marriage – my poor husband. I just assumed I was bored of HIM, maybe bored of the kids, too. It really took a lot for me to sit back and see that I wouldn’t change any part of my life if could, so why was I feeling this way? Everybody was noticing, even my kids. They were worried about me, I wasn’t myself and I wasn’t reaching my potential by any stretch. It was only when I went for my six month check-up with the gynecologist did he see what was happening. He put his arm around me and I sobbed; what had happened to me? It turned out that my severely low estrogen was causing me depression and it was simply ruining the quality of my life and that of those around me. This wasn’t something I could simply talk my way out of and counselling was not going to help me; my body was not coping with the changes that were happening. I now take a very specific SSRI for menopause and it keeps my depression at bay. I know this is only a temporary measure as I can stop taking these drugs once my hormones are not in constant flux.
Urinary Stress Incontinence
On a 5km run in the hilly beauty of Scotland in 2014, I realised that I had peed myself. WHAT?! This had NEVER happened to me before – and how could it? I’m a fitness trainer, I had two kids years ago and never experienced anything like this before. Skipping, trampolining, jumping, sneezing and coughing had never been an issue for me in the years following my two births, yet now, at the age of 44 I was peeing myself. I was devastated and embarrassed! I immediately went to see a Pelvic Floor Physiotherapist for help. I knew this condition was common and I also knew it wasn’t normal, so I didn’t need to accept it as such. After some therapy I definitely saw a change and things were under control, but again this is another thing that I just wasn’t expecting. Reduced estrogen means that the body’s collagen tissue isn’t as elastic as it once was (hence wrinkles) and the lining of the uterus thins during perimenopause, which can affect the strength and function of the pelvic floor as a whole. Now before you start clenching tightly and performing kegels, take pause, this area of physiotherapy is quite unique and women need to re-learn how to correctly strengthen and correct any dysfunctions they may have. This is why I want to take time helping us through this complex area.
I think I have always weighed exactly the same weight since the age of 16 (with the exception of pregnancy), so when I came back from my summer holidays 8lbs heavier than EVER I was gutted. My body had stopped forgiving me for my indulgences! I have always been a pretty clean eater, and love looking after the health of my body, so WHY NOW? Changes in estrogen levels change the structure of fat deposits in the body – moving fat more predominantly to the belly area. Now let me clarify, hormonal changes didn’t get me extra curvy (eating cream cakes and bacon sandwiches every day made me gain weight) but the way my body reacted to these indulgences had definitely changed. It has given me pause for thought! We know that our metabolism usually declines by 10% per decade as we age, for both men and women, but this number is not even close to relevant if you have lean muscle mass.
Strength training actively and regularly builds lean muscle mass which is more metabolically-active, whereas fat mass is metabolically-inactive.
Now more than ever it is important to keep moving, to lift weights and to stay nutritionally focused.
Yes I stink! I really do. My armpits smell like a dirty old jock-strap, I have never stunk like this before. On occasion, down in the nether-regions, I am certain that I detect an old lady stale odour (yes sorry I went there…it’s so gross, but if I won’t and don’t talk about it nobody else will)! Only the other day I squirted my whole body with a bottle of Febreze! Note to all you lovely ladies out there: start carrying Febreze in your handbags. Changes in hormones also can affect your smell sensitivity similar to in pregnancy, maybe I think I smell worse than I do? Who knows.
What has saved me?
It has become only more apparent to me over these two years that nutrition, exercise and relaxation are key to making this period of my life manageable. A strength program that is geared towards building lean muscle and keeping my metabolism revved up is key. Avoiding shitty food also helps keep my migraines at bay and my moods lifted – if I binge on starches and sugars (which I seem to crave more than ever in my life) it just makes me hit rock bottom. Alcohol is not my friend, but it’s on my list to reintroduce once my periods stop forever. I can’t wait to get a little tipsy again! Taking time each day to have some ME-TIME is imperative, a time when I read, nap, knit, go for a walk, something that presses the reset button. Talking about my symptoms to others has been key – speaking to a male trainer friend recently, he explained to me that it’s important that this is a normal dialogue in the industry.
Women in their 40s and 50s are going to be suffering from fatigue, stress and hormonal issues that are just so unique that we all have to be aware of them.
A few! My periods are almost over. I have only had three periods this year- HELL YEAH!
The hair on my body has stopped growing, so I haven’t needed to shave my legs more than twice this year, pretty neat right? Hot flashes (flushes) – I only had this for four days but I loved them, as I am always so cold, it was almost a treat to feel that warm all the time. Truthfully though, they are strange and the best way for me to keep those at bay have been regular exercise. Finally, my boobs have grown – this is a bonus for my husband, but not for me, I hate this actually.
It’s been pretty hard for me to lay bare my issues in this format, but I think it is essential. I am looking forward to producing more information on this topic in the following five articles, and at the end of the series I will be providing you with strength programs that will provide benefits the perimenopausal symptoms. I am also looking forward to interviewing some industry leaders so that you don’t just learn about my experiences, you also will get facts that will help you with the WHY it happens? And the HOW to find solutions to THE CHANGE in our lives!
Are you suffering from perimenopause? Are a trainer, male or female and have encountered similar issues with your client? Tell me your experience.