According to the Mayo Clinic’s definition, menopause is the time that marks the end of a woman’s menstrual cycles…
“It’s diagnosed after a woman has gone 12 months without a menstrual period. Menopause can happen in your 40s or 50s, but the average age is 51 in the United States.”
Before entering menopause, a woman will experience some or all of the symptoms of perimenopause (this could last from a few months to a few years.)
According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms include:
- Irregular periods
- Vaginal dryness
- Hot flashes
- Night sweats
- Sleep problems
- Mood changes
- Weight gain and slowed metabolism
- Thinning hair and dry skin
- Loss of breast fullness
Clinical sexologist and relationship counsellor, Leandie Buys says that the “decrease in female hormone levels during menopause may also result in a decrease in sexual desire.”
Studies show that low libido affects between 20% and 45% of menopausal women.
“These women feel that the decrease in sexual desire affects their relationship with their partner,” says Buys.
During menopause, certain hormone levels decrease. The function of these hormones include:
- Oestrogen – helps to heighten sensitivity during intercourse
- Progesterone – keeps the libido up
- Testosterone – boosts sexual desire and lubricates the vagina
However, there are a number of treatment and management options for menopausal symptoms and there are many things that can be done to increase libido.
Some of the things that women struggle with most include:
- Vaginal Atrophy (vaginal narrowing or shrinkage): This is caused by a drop in hormones including oestrogen which may cause the vagina to become dry. Penetration can become painful, and sex may even lead to bleeding. “Over-the-counter lubricants can help make sex less painful for women suffering from vaginal atrophy,” says Buys. Painful sex during menopause can even lead to secondary vaginismus. “This can be treated very successfully through counselling and a specially designed programme,” says Buys.
- Hot flushes: Dealing with hot flushes, night sweats and insomnia can leave a woman feeling exhausted. Buys recommends regular exercise which has been shown to decrease the intensity of hot flushes. Some research shows that they can also be brought on by spicy food, alcohol, and caffeine.
- Mood swings: Menopausal and peri-menopausal women experience constant mood swings. “It is difficult to plan romantic occasions or have spontaneous sex or even communicate during these swings,” says Buys. Making sure your partner understands what is going on is important. Otherwise they might blame themselves for your ‘mood’. Do some research together on what menopause is and what changes take place in a woman’s body. Identify ways that you and your partner can communicate effectively about it, and how you can support each other through it.
- Depression: “Mild to major depression can also be brought on by menopause,” says Buys.
Women feel guilty about becoming ‘old’ not wanting sex. If they don’t understand what’s happening to them, they become frustrated and angry with themselves. Depression often results from a woman mourning her former self.” Buys recommends counselling to help work through the changes and identify new roles and goals in life.
- Decreased self-image: “Women can feel unattractive or ashamed of the way that their bodies change during menopause,” says Buys. “Incontinence, weight gain and changes in the texture and suppleness of their skin and breasts can all affect the way women feel about their sexuality.”
Possible treatments to investigate
- Lubricants – These help to lubricate the vagina and make intercourse less painful.
- Hormone creams – Some of these prescription creams contain oestrogen and can help increase blood flow to the vagina. This will help with an increase in sensitivity and easier orgasm
- Hormone Therapy (HT) – This used to be called hormone replacement therapy (HRT). The treatment artificially boosts hormone levels that decrease during menopause. It can either be a short-term treatment (two to five years) for relieving the symptoms of menopause or a long-term treatment to reduce the risk of osteoporosis. Sometimes testosterone is added to the HRT to increase sexual desire. “A woman should consult her doctor before beginning Hormone Therapy,” says Buys. “There are some possible side-effects of this therapy which could increase some women’s chances of: blood clots, breast cancer, vaginal bleeding, headaches, nausea and mood changes.”
- Regular exercise – Research has shown that regular, intense exercise has helped decrease the intensity of hot flushes. Strength training also helps build strong muscles and bones which reduces your risk of developing osteoporosis due to lower oestrogen levels. Added muscle density has also been shown to increase your metabolism, and as a final ‘benefit’, being toned makes you feel good!
- A healthy balanced diet is also key – There are also some vitamins and minerals you need to increase to ensure your body functions optimally. Make sure you get enough calcium, iron and fibre and stay well hydrated.