Even as a woman,Oluwatope has always had very little knowledge about the biological make up of a woman. She knew absolutely nothing about the menarche and puberty and even less about menstrual periods until as a 12–year-old, she woke up one morning and saw blood stains on her night dress and bed sheets. “I didn’t know what happened but I was really scared when I saw the blood.
I thought I was going to die and began to cry. I was the youngest child in a family of five with three children — all girls. I have two older sisters but neither of them, nor my mother or father prepared me for the experience. My first menstrual period was an unpleasant surprise.”
If Oluwatope’s entry into womanhood was unexpected and unprepared, expecting her to understand what the menopausal experience would be like is probably asking too much. “I was as ignorant about menopause as I was about puberty more than three decades ago simply because I never expected it to happen to me, yet.”
Today, even as a woman in her mid 40s and herself a mother of three children aged 12, 10 and seven, the knowledge and information about menopause is just as sketchy and vague as her experience about puberty. Oluwatope was 44 when she realised she had started missing a few periods. It didn’t bother her at first as she leads quite a stressful life. But after a while, she started getting really bad Premenstrual Tension or PMT whenever she had a period. She gained weight almost overnight and her eating habits also changed.
Then came the hot flushes. The first wave was intense and unpredictable. The attacks came on at any time. They were even worse than the PMT. Oluwatope felt like she was having a panic attack. “I had this feeling of intense pressure in my upper chest, and then my face began to feel like it was on fire. I also got palpitations.” Hot flushes are the most common reason women seek treatment for menopause. They can last from a few seconds to several minutes and often induce a sweat followed by a chill. They often occur at night but some women have them several times a day.
Expect the unexpected
Olabode, Oluwatope’s husband had a hard time coping. Sometimes his wife is nice, sometimes she is nasty, yet he has no way of knowing whether she would wake up nasty or nice.
They both had no idea what was going on, and in time, Oluwatope consulted her personal physician to discuss the best course of action. “My doctor is a woman, so I felt comfortable discussing things with her. I didn’t feel that I needed any medication. I just wanted information about what was happening to me and how I could manage it.”
What is it?
The doctor dismissed her fears. “What you are going through is known as the perimenopause. It is the period of time from when you start to get symptoms to when your periods eventually stop. Your periods may become irregular and you may have symptoms of oestrogen deficiency, such as hot flushes, vaginal dryness and sweats.
This may last about four years on average, until the very last period.” Menopause, that time when a woman’s monthly period stops for good, is a natural part of ageing. It happens when the ovaries stop producing oestrogen and progesterone — the female sex hormones.
When does it occur?
Gynaecologists say menopause is said to have occurred after 12 consecutive months of no periods. It is a change of life that usually happens between 45 and 55 years of age for most women, but could occur earlier or later. Menopause before the age of 40 is called “early menopause”. Factors associated with early menopause include a family, never having had a baby, a hysterectomy, previous chemotherapy or radiation therapy for cancer, and early failure of the ovaries.
Dryness and urinary problems
Falls in oestrogen levels can cause walls of the vagina to become drier and thinner, which can lead to itching, irritation or pain during intercourse. Weakening of the bladder and thinning of the opening of the bladder (the urethra) can also occur.
Although many women experience mood changes around menopause, it is not clear whether these changes are linked to lower oestrogen levels or other issues which can coincide with this time in life, such as career pressures.
Some women do not experience adverse effects and aren’t aware of any other changes in their body. For most women, symptoms do not last long, but lower oestrogen levels after menopause can contribute to health problems including osteoporosis (loss of bone mass and thinning and weakening of bone) and a raised risk of heart disease.
In trying to cope, Oluwatope has made small changes to her life style. “For example, she never used to eat breakfast but now makes sure she has at least some cereal or a sandwich and a proper lunch to keep her blood sugar levels steady.
Each woman will experience menopause differently and there is no one treatment that will suit everyone. Menopause is an entirely natural phenomenon, not a disease, and many women experience no or minimal symptoms and require no specific treatment. However, for others it can be a very unpleasant time. Some women don’t want any medical intervention, while others try complementary and natural remedies.