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common conditions

Relieving menopause symptoms

If you’re approaching, or experiencing, menopause you’re probably aware of how it can affect your mind and body. Here’s how to manage the symptoms.

Denby Weller
October 2018

Most women experience menopause between the ages of 45 and 55. It’s defined as a woman’s final menstrual period, and once you haven’t had any periods for a year, you’re considered ‘postmenopausal’.

Menopause leads to changes in the levels of 3 important hormones: oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone.

These changes can bring on a host of symptoms, from hot flushes and sweats, to sleep disturbance, mood swings, lethargy and weight gain.

Menopause symptoms typically last for about 5 years, but some women have symptoms for 10 years, says Dr Sonia Davison, endocrinologist at Jean Hailes for Women’s Health.

Hormones explained

Oestrogen: A group of hormones that regulate the female reproductive system’s development and function. During menopause, oestrogen production drops by 80% or more as egg numbers decrease in the ovaries (the cells around the eggs produce oestrogen).

Progesterone: Produced by the ovaries, placenta (during pregnancy) and adrenal glands, progesterone’s main function is to regulate the condition of the inner lining (endometrium) of the uterus.

Testosterone: Although only found in small amounts in women, testosterone is still responsible for functions such as maintaining muscle mass, which is a key factor in reducing health risks such as falls in later years. Testosterone levels drop during menopause.

Treatments to try                        

To ease the symptoms of menopause, 12% of Australian women aged 40-65 use hormone replacement therapy (HRT), also known as menopausal hormone therapy (MHT). It comes in various forms, including pills, patches, gels and implants.

Like most medications HRT has some risks, but it’s considered safe for many women. Your GP can advise whether the treatment is safe for you, and how long it’s safe for you to be on it.

Alternative therapies

Some women use alternative therapies to aid menopause symptoms, but caution should be taken.

Herbal remedies such as black cohosh and red clover are options but according to Jean Hailes, research on their use is inconsistent. There may be a low risk of liver damage with black cohosh.

Some herbal remedies and supplements shouldn’t be used with other medications. The quality and source of herbal medications and supplements can also vary widely.

There’s little evidence to support other alternative therapies, though many women find relaxation techniques and yoga soothing.

A 2017 study of more than 200 women published in the journal Menopause found that acupuncture reduced menopause symptoms, including hot flushes and night sweats.

If you’re considering using these remedies or treatments, speak to your doctor first about the risks.

The lowdown on soy

Soy products have been used successfully to minimise menopause symptoms in some women, due to a natural compound called phytoestrogen.

“It resembles human oestrogen, but at a very, very low dose,” says Kate Di Prima, accredited practising dietitian.

However, only about a third of women have the gut bacteria that convert phytoestrogens to the more potent form. So while soy products may have other benefits such as being high in fibre and protein, they won’t necessarily help every woman with the symptoms of menopause.

Although soy has been linked to a risk of cancer, some research shows benefits for cancer prevention. More research is needed to confirm the benefits and risks of soy.

Eating right for your age

Diet can play an important role after menopause. “When oestrogen drops, our ability to maintain calcium in our bones drops,” says Di Prima.

It’s common to gain weight around this time which can affect menopause symptoms. This can be partly due to body changes as we age, as your muscles decrease and metabolism slows. It can also be due to hormone changes.

“Excess weight can act as insulation and make flushes and sweats worse,” says Dr Davidson.

Eating a healthy diet is as important as ever, and the recommendations around this change as we get older. According to the Government’s healthy eating guidelines, women aged 51 to 70 should eat 4 servings of protein and calcium-rich dairy foods per day, compared to just 2.5 serves for women under 50. The recommended servings of grains and cereals also drop from 6 to 4 for women aged 51-70.

Strength training

Weight-bearing exercise can help to maintain health after menopause, says Di Prima.

Osteoporosis Australia recommends exercise that encourages bone strength. Activities including tennis, running and brisk walking are more beneficial for bone strength than cycling or swimming, and are recommended at least 3 times a week.

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