Symptoms of the menopause to look out for
This article provides an overview of the most common symptoms of menopause you can expect. However, before we start, it has to be said that not every woman going through the menopause will experience symptoms, and if you do, it is likely that these will be mild and resolve quickly.
Hot flushes, menopausal sweats & night sweats
Hot flushes, often accompanied by menopausal sweats, are the most common symptoms encountered and experienced by over 80% of women going through the menopause. The problem appears to arise as changes in hormone levels upset the temperature regulating part of the brain.
As hot flushes and sweats often occur together, the two terms are commonly used interchangeably to describe the same set of symptoms. Night sweats are simply excessive sweating or a hot flush at night. As it can disturb sleep, it can potentially be more disruptive on quality of life.
Sudden changes in room temperature, eating spicy foods as well as stressful situations can trigger hot flushes and sweats.
Changes in the menstrual cycle
Menopause occurs when periods stop. However, it is rare that the monthly menstrual bleed ceases suddenly. Most commonly, the menstrual cycle becomes irregular with a tendency towards heavier or more painful periods.
Periods may come further apart or there could be spotting in between menstrual bleeds. Sometimes women may go a few months without a period, only for it to return with a vengeance.
Excessively heavy periods may be an indication of fibroids affecting the womb or other gynaecological disorder, especially if accompanied by severe pain. It is always best to consult a doctor if you experience these symptoms.
Becoming older often means a natural reduction in physical activity – so the menopause will not be the only reason for weight gain. Having said that, changes in hormone levels do influence body weight, although the way it does this is not always consistent.
In general, women tend to gain weight during the menopause. Use this information to prepare yourself - exercise more and watch what you eat.
Low mood, irritability and anxiety
Falling levels of hormones during the menopause can affect the way the brain functions and women may experience the symptom of low mood or mood swings during the menopause. These symptoms are probably more common than we realise, and very occasionally, the changes in hormones can bring on depression.
Low mood during the menopause is not helped by the fact that this phase of life can be associated with children leaving home, creating ‘empty nests’ – not helpful when you are already feeling a bit down during the menopause.
Anxiety and irritability can also be part of the menopause. Some women find these symptoms similar in nature to pre-menstrual tension (PMT) and cope with them as such. Occasionally, anxiety or irritability may be accompanied by palpitations, or an awareness of one’s heartbeat.
Muscle and joint pain
Some women experience symptoms of joint or muscle pain during the menopause. These most commonly affect the muscles and joints of the top half of the body – neck, shoulders, elbows and hands.
Hormones play an important role in a woman’s joint health and fluctuating oestrogen levels during the menopause can have an impact on how your muscles and joints behave.
If you experience symptoms of joint or muscle pain and stiffness, there are a number of ways you can help yourself naturally. Changing your diet can have a positive effect on these symptoms of menopause. Stay away from sugar and increase your intake of vitamin C.
Other menopause symptoms
Other symptoms of the menopause are more rarely encountered and include:
- Menopause headaches. These may be a direct outcome of irritability and anxiety. Although not fully understood, it seems that hormonal changes during the menopause may have a direct effect, giving rise to headaches in (probably) the same way that women with migraines suffer headaches at particular points in their menstrual cycle.
- Forgetfulness. Women may experience a tendency to forgetfulness during the menopause and simply put it down to being older. This is not helped if night sweats are disturbing sleep, if you are feeling low or anxious. The symptom often improves as one gets through the menopause. However, you can help yourself by ditching your pride and working with notes and lists. Also, do all you can to get enough sleep which will allow your brain to work more effectively.
- Disturbed sleep. Sleep during the menopause can be disturbed by night sweats and hot flushes and it is true that as these symptoms improve, sleep becomes better. However, as with low mood, the change in hormones during the menopause can, on its own, give rise to disturbed sleep. Symptoms include waking up often during the night, poor quality sleep and driving your partner mad tossing and turning through the night. If your sleep problems are not related to night sweats or hot flushes, you may wish to visit our pages on How to Sleep Better and our Good Sleep Guide.
- Hair, skin and nails during the menopause. The condition of anyone’s hair, skin and nails can be a sign or symptom of how healthy we are. During the menopause, some women find that these parts of the body lose condition, lustre and strength. Hormonal changes during the menopause cause the connective tissue under our skin to become thinner and less elastic. This can lead to the dreaded wrinkles but also affects the way our hair and nails are ‘fed’ nutritionally.
- Bladder and sexual problems. Weakness of connective tissue may not simply affect hair, skin and nails during the menopause. These same changes can also affect the tissues controlling your bladder and you may find a need to pass urine more frequently during the menopause. In the same way, the tissues surrounding the vagina become weaker. Lower levels of oestrogen reduce vaginal secretions and lubrication and one of the consequences of the menopause is difficulty with normal sexual function. This, together with reduced hormone levels, can lead to lack of libido.
- Osteoporosis. This condition is popularly known as ‘thinning of the bones’. It comes about when bones lose their calcium content and weaken. The hormone oestrogen is an important factor stimulating the cells responsible for building bones. Lower levels of the hormone during and after the menopause cause a gradual loss of bone strength. Although this tendency is seen in all menopausal women, not everyone is at risk of osteoporosis. Those with a family history of the problem, smokers and women who have been less physically active in the past are more prone to the problem.