By Rachel Lankester
Is there a normal age for menopause?
At 41 I found out I’d gone through early menopause. Yes 41! The doctor who told me was as shocked as me. At the time it was a devastating diagnosis because I was trying for another child.
I was in a new relationship and had wanted another baby since my son was born nearly 10 years earlier. As we were both not exactly spring chickens, it seemed prudent to get a hormone check to see what the possibilities were. The results came as a huge shock.
There were several things going on that made it such a shocking diagnosis. Firstly the average age of menopause in the West is 51. So I was a whole decade early, or so I thought.
I had absolutely no knowledge of menopause but had associated it with a much older woman, not who I considered myself to be. I knew nothing about perimenopause. So I felt catapulted into middle age.
Gradually I realized that at 41 I was actually already middle-aged! With average life expectancy of 81 in the UK for women I was right smack in the middle of my life. So much for denial!
The second thing was that I’d experienced no symptoms whatsoever. Apart from the results of the hormone test, there was nothing to indicate to me that anything was amiss.
I had a busy and quite stressful career, and I hadn’t even noticed my periods must have been either non-existent or certainly very patchy. So to be told I had the hormone profile of a postmenopausal woman was surprising to say the least.
I’m now convinced my high-pressure career and my inability to manage stress levels better were contributory factors to my early menopause. I suspect nowadays the diagnosis would be different.
Or perhaps with a different doctor, the diagnosis might have been different. Since it happened, I’ve learnt the knowledge of doctors (GPs) in the UK, of menopause, is woefully inadequate.
This is crazy considering menopause affects 50% of the population! I’ve learnt over the last decade that hormonal fluctuations during the perimenopause years are normal and can be pretty extreme.
Perimenopause is the years leading up to menopause and can start as early as your 30s though most women start this process in their 40s. Menopause is defined as two years after your last period if you’re under 50, and one year if you’re over.
Some doctors are reluctant to test hormones for menopause when a woman is in her 40s because of these day-to-day hormonal fluctuations. But it would appear my doctor didn’t know any of that when he told me definitively I had gone through menopause.
So began a long and at times quite tortuous journey to find out more about what was happening to my body. I had to come to terms with secondary infertility, re-evaluate where I was in my life and who I now was, and process everything that early menopause meant.
Standard medical advice then was to go on HRT because of the early menopause. That’s still the case depending on when early menopause hits.
The reason I was given for going on HRT was to protect my bones and my heart from the 10 years less protection from estrogen they would normally have had.
The first thing I did was to reach out to the Daisy Network which offers support and information for women going through early menopause. I went to their Daisy Day in June and found it incredibly helpful.
Not only did it give me lots of information and great contacts, but it also gave me a reality check. At 41 I was one of the oldest women going through early menopause. I already had one child.
Most of the women at the event had gone through only menopause much earlier and before they had any chance of conceiving a child naturally. Just recently I saw a BBC TV interview with a 15 year old girl who had already gone through menopause. How devastating! She was incredibly brave.
But for me, what had seemed at first like a devastating diagnosis was quite abruptly put into perspective at the Daisy event. The women there who had children, had done so either through adoption or egg donation.
Their menopause had kicked in before they’d got around to trying to make babies. There were also presentations from women who decided not to try either of those routes and were creating a life that did not include motherhood.
At the event I was introduced to two people who would play a major role in what happened next. First Dr Marilyn Glenville, a nutritionist who specializes in women’s health and particularly hormonal balance.
Secondly Dr Nick Panay, a specialist in early menopause who has a clinic at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital in London. Perhaps it was that someone mentioned Dr Glenville having some success in getting women’s periods back, I can’t remember, but I decided I wanted to meet her and get her advice. So my first action was a consultation with Dr Glenville.
This was very interesting and set me on my path towards wanting as natural a menopause as possible. Dr Glenville put me on a restricted diet, gave me a special tincture to take and within a month my periods had returned!
This was quite miraculous for me and in retrospect shows how wrong the initial diagnosis was because of the possibilities around hormonal fluctuation in the perimenopausal years. So what did I do in terms of changing my diet?
I was told to cut out all caffeine, sugar, alcohol, processed food and have regular meals and snacks so my blood sugar level remained constant. The only sweet thing I was allowed was manuka honey in a very small amount.
Even fruit was limited and bananas were certainly off the menu. I was delighted to get my periods back and I quickly went for another hormone test.
My doctor was astounded! So menopause age had changed for me again! The hormone test came back showing a completely normal premenopausal profile.
So we went full steam ahead on trying for a child again. But what Dr Glenville did not tell me is that even if I got my periods back, it might only be for a short while before my body resorted to what it actually wanted to do in the first place.
Within nine months I was back to my postmenopausal state. Maybe I didn’t keep up with the restricted diet, I can’t really remember. Talk about confusing!
When I went back to her clinic and spoke to her colleague, I found out the menopause reversal might not be a long-term one. Kinda wish I’d known that before!
When it became clear my body had again resorted to menopause, I decided I’d better at least consider other options and I requested a referral to Dr Panay’s specialist early menopause clinic.
The only real symptom I’d encountered still at that stage was lower libido. So menopause had again just happened without much warning other than periods just disappearing.
But who knows if my lower libido was actually because of all the worry about what was going on, feeling a shadow of my former self (having bought into negative menopause narratives) and other life events at the time.
Dr Panay and his team were sensitive, knowledgeable and very helpful. I thought it such a shame that outside of that clinic, there was so little knowledge of early menopause in the NHS.
My experience since has shown it’s menopause in general that still seems to be a mystery to many doctors. After a bone density scan showed borderline osteopenia in my hip, I decided to take the doctors advice and take HRT and I stayed on it until so-called ‘normal’ menopause age of 51.
It was always my plan to come off HRT at ‘normal’ menopause age and that is what I did. I weaned myself off it and have managed both the transition and any symptoms since coming off, with a range of dietary and lifestyle changes that I’ve written extensively about elsewhere.
So perimenopause/menopause can pretty much start at any time. Menopause age is not only completely different for each woman but can even change for the same woman as it did for me!
Shame no one tells us that when we’re learning about the reproductive cycle at school. For many women in their 50s it still comes as a surprise!
It’s not until the age of 56 that it starts to becomes a bit late if you haven’t already gone through the change. So bear in mind that menopause age is a moveable feast!
You may also like: Food For Symptoms of Menopause – Your Menopause Diet and What Are the 34 Symptoms Of Menopause
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Rachel Lankester is founder of the Magnificent Midlife Movement, host of the Magnificent Midlife Podcast, a midlife mentor and editor of the Mutton Club online magazine. After an initially devastating early menopause at 41, she dedicated herself to helping women vibrantly transition through the sometimes messy middle of life, helping them cope better with menopause and ageing in general, and create magnificent next chapters. She’s been featured in/on BBC Woman’s Hour, The Huffington Post, Thrive Global, Authority Magazine, The Age Buster, Woman’s Weekly, Prima Magazine, eShe, Tatler HK and Woman’s Own amongst others. She believes we just get better with age.