⏱ 3 Min Read

Are you experiencing these early menopause symptoms?

Written by
Eleni Stefanou

Medically reviewed by
Dr Dupe Burgess, BSc, MBBS, MRCP

Updated on
11 Mar 2024

Before we dive into the symptoms of menopause, let’s quickly define what it is:

  • Menopause marks the end of your menstrual cycles following a decrease in hormone levels.

  • You officially reach menopause when you’ve gone 12 months without a period.

  • With menopause, your ovaries stop releasing eggs, and your oestrogen and progesterone levels decrease significantly.

Menopause marks a specific point in time (12 months with no period), but you’re likely to experience symptoms before and after this happens. For this reason, it’s helpful to consider the three stages associated with menopause:

  • Perimenopause: the stage of life leading up to your last period.

  • Menopause: the official delineation of being without a period for 12 months.

  • Post-menopause: the years following this delineation.

Typically, menopause occurs between the ages of 45 and 55, but it can also come sooner. The average age in the UK age is 51.

It can be brought on prematurely through medical treatments (eg chemotherapy or a total hysterectomy) and by heavy smoking. (1) Some health conditions can cause menopause-like symptoms, including primary ovarian insufficiency.

The first noticeable signs are hot flushes and a change in your period, which might become lighter or heavier. It might also arrive more frequently (eg every 2-3 weeks) or become less frequent. If you’re on contraception, this could mask menopause symptoms (more on contraception below).

Oestrogen and progesterone are key players when it comes to regulating your body’s functions, so when their levels change this can affect you mentally and physically. Here are some of the signs to look out for:

Mental health symptoms

  • Low mood

  • Anxiety

  • Irritability

  • Depression

  • Low self-esteem

  • Mood swings

  • Low libido

  • Brain fog

  • Memory problems

  • Fatigue

Physical symptoms

  • Hot flushes (sudden temperature changes)

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Night sweats

  • Heart palpitations (your heart feels like it’s thumping in your chest or is skipping beats)

  • Headaches and migraines

  • Weight gain

  • Skin changes (eg dry or itchy skin)

  • Low sex drive

  • Muscle aches or joint pain

  • Recurrent UTIs (urinary tract infections)

  • Vaginal dryness

  • Vaginal pain, itching or discomfort during sex

  • Sensitive teeth or painful gums

For decades, menopause was seen as a sudden switch that occurs when you’re older, but your hormones start fluctuating before this milestone arrives. Welcome to perimenopause! In some cases, women experience symptoms 10 years before their period stops. You’ll want to read our perimenopause explainer to get the full lowdown.

A small percentage of women won’t notice that their ovaries have entered a new phase, aside from the fact that their periods have stopped. 85 per cent of women will, however, report symptoms. (2)

Every woman responds to hormone changes differently, but even if you’re among the lucky symptom-free people, menopause impacts how your body functions and this can affect your long-term health (we’ll come to this in a moment).

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Research suggests that if your symptoms start after you’ve had your last period, you are more likely to experience symptoms for a shorter time (on average 4.5 years). (3) Whereas if your symptoms began before your final period, they are likely to be with you for longer (an average 11.8 years in total and an average 9.4 years after your final period).

While symptoms can be hugely destabilising for many women, their severity can fluctuate and improve with time.

Research from the US shows that Black women tend to enter menopause at an earlier age. (3) They also experience symptoms for longer and are most bothered by their symptoms. In this same study, Asian women had the lowest prevalence of symptoms, while Hispanic and White women fell between the Black and Asian groups.

Other factors that can worsen symptoms and/or make them last longer:

  • Being from a low socioeconomic background

  • Low education

  • Smoking

  • A history of childhood abuse or neglect

It depends on the form of contraception you’re on and whether you get periods or period-type bleeds. If you don’t have bleed days due to the contraception you’re taking, you won’t be able to track obvious changes to your menstrual cycle like lighter or heavier periods.

If you do have bleed days, you may notice changes along with some of the other menopause symptoms listed above (although birth control can mask these as well). While there is currently no definitive test for menopause, in some cases, a hormone test measuring your levels of estradiol (a form of oestrogen), luteinising hormone (LH) and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) can indicate the stage you are in.

If you’ve stopped having periods for 12 months this means your ovaries are no longer releasing eggs, which means you can no longer get pregnant naturally. Until you’ve reached this 12-month mark, you can potentially still get pregnant.

While menopause is a natural phenomenon, it’s important to speak to a healthcare professional if symptoms are impacting your quality of life, if you’re planning on having children or if you have an existing health condition.

You should talk to a healthcare provider if your periods are heavier to make sure you’re not losing too much blood and to assess whether there is an underlying health issue (eg polyps, fibroids or endometrial hyperplasia).

Depending on your symptoms and risk factors, a menopause-informed clinician should talk you through your family planning options, how you can address your symptoms and mitigate long-term health problems. We’ll cover the specialists you should speak to in a second.

Low levels of oestrogen and progesterone raise your risk of developing heart disease and osteoporosis, and of having a stroke. This doesn’t mean you’re destined to face these health issues, rather, it signals an increased risk. Lifestyle modifications can help reduce these risks.

Gynaecologist or menopause specialist: If you’ve noticed changes in your cycle, especially if your period has become heavier, ask to be referred to a gynaecologist or doctor who specialises in menopause. You can avoid long waiting times by speaking directly to a gynaecologist through Bloomful.

Mental health professional: If you’re experiencing anxiety, depression or any mood-related issues, speaking to a therapist or counsellor can be a helpful outlet and management tool.

Urologist: If you’re experiencing frequent UTIs or vaginal dryness, a urologist can assess your symptoms and prescribe topical treatments. A GP and gynaecologist can also do this.

Nutritionist or health coach: If you’re looking for support with lifestyle changes, booking some time with a nutritionist or health coach can help set you up for success. You can speak directly to a women’s health coach through Bloomful.

1. Stay informed by tracking your period

Since menstrual cycle changes are one of the earliest signs of menopause, keeping track of your period can help you recognise early, subtle shifts.

2. Address symptoms from the outset

Menopause can have a huge impact on your work and personal life. Yes, it’s a natural part of ageing, but you don’t have to suffer in silence. You deserve a great quality of life and there are options to help you achieve it.

3. Find a healthcare provider who gets it

Because perimenopause symptoms can start in your 30s and early 40s, some doctors can fail to connect the dots and may jump to the conclusion that you’re simply stressed with life. If you feel your concerns aren’t being heard, it’s time to get a second opinion.

4. Think of menopause as a life phase

Instead of a singular event, menopause should be treated as a journey requiring self-compassion and - depending on the severity of your symptoms - a tailored healthcare plan. Because it’s a phase, this also means that symptoms should subside over time.

References

(1) Cigarette Smoking and Risk of Early Natural Menopause (Published: 2018 Authors:Am J Epidemiol)

(2) Menopausal Symptoms: Comparative Effectiveness of Therapies (Published: 2015 Authors: Grant MD, Marbella A, Wang AT, et al.)

(3) Duration of Menopausal Vasomotor Symptoms Over the Menopause Transition (Published: 2015 Authors: Nancy E. Avis, PhD1; Sybil L. Crawford, PhD2; Gail Greendale, MD3; et al)

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