When I set up this blog to chart my weight loss and fitness progress, menopause never specifically entered my mind. I noticed however that as I got older keeping my weight stable was getting harder and harder but I put each failed attempt down to me not working hard enough on my diet and exercise. When I started my current weight loss journey in September 2014, I was plagued by plateaus and slow progress and by the spring of 2016 I noticed that the weight just would not shift. Accordingly, I sought professional help and for the first time a London nutritionist helped me make the link between the effect of the drop in female hormones and it’s effect on weight loss. I now realise that going forward, this is a topic that I am going to consider alongside my journey to a fit and stable healthy weight and I plan to do my bit to share my knowledge with other women particularly the generations to come because menopause signals a drop in hormones that affects all aspects of a woman’s life. It was in this spirit that I agreed to do the following feature article dated 27 February 2018 which went as follows:
Julie, 50 and a British-Nigerian solicitor, shares her story:
I am 50 years old and a solicitor and co-founding partner in a small legal aid practice specialising in social welfare law, specifically housing. I had IVF treatment years ago and it was not successful so I have no children. I carry a lot of sadness about being childless so as you can imagine the concept of menopause `that feeling. This to me is the worst thing about menopause and the symptoms serve as a reminder of my loss especially the miscarriage I suffered following one pivotal round of treatment. I was born in the UK but moved back to Nigeria with my family only 3 years after the end of the Biafran war.
My father, the late Benedict Obiamiwe was an academic and my mother, Maria is a retired nurse who practiced both in Nigeria and the UK, NHS. I grew up in an educated family and was surrounded by educated people spending my early years on a University campus but I can see now that I always lacked a full sex education and never connected the dots.
My mother taught me to keep a record of my menstrual cycles in a diary; this I clearly remember. I cannot, however, recall much else other than the usual warnings from Nigerian mothers about avoiding promiscuity and shaming the family with an unwanted pregnancy – an irony in my current circumstances. I have also never had any discussion with my mother about menopause even though I have pushed, prodded and dropped enough hints. In addition, based on what I have heard about what my mother might have experienced during menopause, I don’t get the impression that she had sufficient knowledge about it when she was going through it herself. Accordingly, I have done my best to educate myself the best way I can albeit after the fact. I read a lot and have joined lots of support groups to educate myself. I draw support from these groups. My best friend knows what I am going through along with one or two relatives.
I found out that I was perimenopausal following a routine blood test. As I was nearly 49 at the time, the surgery did not call me to say the blood tests results had arrived. When I did not hear back I became so worried that I made an appointment. My GP subsequently explained that they had not called me back as there was nothing remarkable about the blood test results for a woman my age. However, when my GP mentioned menopause it was like a knife in my heart and I started to cry. I went on to cry for days. I had also begun experiencing hot flushes but I was not sure until the blood test result arrived because the hot flushes felt so mild. My GP appointment was a shock because just 6 months prior to this I had another blood test and it showed that my ovarian reserve was low but I was not at all menopausal with my FSH levels well below 20. Looking back now, I was very stressed in the 6 month period prior to that and now I wonder whether this brought my menopause forward. Shoulda, woulda, coulda.
I then had a period of feeling really quite poorly with dreadful hot and then cold flushes and migraine-like headaches. Having had years of experience of trying to get my body healthy for IVF treatment, I began adopting more healthy eating to get me through and the symptoms vanished in the main as quickly as they appeared and my period resumed with the normal flow. I then had a phase of when my period would come and I would feel normal but after my period ended, the symptoms would worsen and worsen and then my period would arrive and then the cycle would be repeated. Then suddenly out of the blue, my periods stopped and I am now in the countdown waiting for the last one and for menopause to be confirmed once 12 months have elapsed from my last period.
With the benefit of hindsight, I can look back at my life and see how perimenopause was affecting me from my mid-40s. I put on a lot of weight and put this down to poor eating and inconsistent workouts plus work-related stress and pressure. I have always had a healthy appetite but had I known about the effects of my diminishing hormones I would not have beaten myself up quite so much for not losing weight. On the other hand, I would have made different choices too for instance in times of stress I would not have been so quick to turn to comfort food and larger portions assuming that I could run off any excess weight easily like had always done when I was younger.
I had suffered from insomnia on and off since my early 30s and again put it down to work-related anxiety and stress. In 2012 and 2013 I tried so hard to lose weight with little or no success. At times I was eating about 800 calories a day but still could not lose weight. I once worked with a personal trainer who was convinced that I was cheating on my diet. I was not only NOT cheating, but I would sneak in extra work on my treadmill and still could not lose weight and I felt I had to stop training with her.
I had terrible irritable bowel syndrome and every time I visited the GP surgery I would be given a print out to read and follow. I now realise that I was developing problems metabolising carbohydrates and possibly metabolic syndrome. With adequate education, I would have known that digestive issues are a symptom of perimenopause and I would have taken better care of myself.
The other symptom I never knew had anything to do with menopause was insomnia especially as I have suffered from this on and off since my early 30s. My GP could not give me any help with this so I ended up using Nytol, an over the counter remedy for a very long period of time. I only came off it last year when I realised that my dependence on sleeping tablets had turned me into a very loud snorer. I still have trouble sleeping to this day so insomnia is the second thing I hate most about menopause.
The third thing I hate most about menopause is the hot flushes, but like Kirsty Wark who did an excellent programme for the BBC by the way on the subject, this tends to happen when I am in certain situations; for instance when I am about to wake up from sleep, sometimes sipping very hot drinks or eating very spicy food or when I am angry or anxious – in the context I mean the sort of anxiety one has when one is about to miss a flight. I know I don’t suffer this symptom as badly as other women experience but the fact that they can happen at any given time without warning keeps me on edge which I hate.
My IBS has calmed down a great deal as I have changed my diet a lot. After another yo-yo that saw me gain nearly 20lbs by June 2017, I found a new eating programme and have since managed to get back on track and am now 4lbs away from BMI 25. I still have a significant amount of belly fat so there is still work to be done. I now keep notes about what works for me and my symptoms and try to update my blog regularly and keep myself accountable.
My coping strategy
I cope with difficulties in life by exercising – as hard as I can push myself. The timing of my father’s death nearly 20 years ago coincided with other difficulties in my life and I became depressed. In the end exercise, especially running was a major coping strategy for me. I am now employing the same strategy with menopause.
I am fighting hard against the pain that I feel because of menopause. I am fighting for my figure and feel joyful every time I can wear something I have not been able to wear for 10 years – sometimes longer. I have always loved fashion so my figure is worth fighting for as an important tool to express myself. I fight for every little scrap of happiness sometimes on an hour by hour basis. I also still love singing and dancing as much as I did as a child and can sing or dance myself out of really bad moods.
There is a culture of silence and ignorance around menopause. It is hard to swim against the tide of culture no matter what one’s level of education because both in Nigeria and the UK there is a lack of proper sex education for women from cradle to grave.
Educating younger women and looking positively to the future
My master plan many years ago was to take HRT during menopause and then the cancer stories in the media put me off. I am now considering bioidentical HRT and weighing up the pros and cons. I experiment with supplements and a magnet. Angus Casta was very effective and took all my symptoms away but I don’t enjoy the pill-popping regime. The thing that works the best for me is exercise so I focus on that in the main. One downside is that many gyms do not have trainers that know what to do with women at this stage of life so the advice about diet and exercise can be hit or miss. Lack of sleep affects my exercise performance so I could do with a lot of help in that department. I would like to challenge my body and find out how fast I could run or how high I could jump.
My message to younger women is that there is a lot to look forward to when you reach 50 years of age. In many ways, life has been a tough struggle for me but I am a glass half full person and I always believe that a happy ending is possible. The BBC did a fabulous radio programme called Rewinding the Menopause. I believe that we are not far away from finding much better solutions and just as medicine found a way to make childbirth safer for women; I believe that with the right education we can do the same with menopause. We need to also find out why women in the west have such a tough time with menopause compared to say our Japanese counterparts and learn from best practice. Women need to support each other to look after and safeguard our health and wellbeing and that includes speaking up and doing so truthfully. For example, I am told that some Nigerian women pretend to still have periods with their partners. This should never be necessary in my opinion.