Menopause isn’t something I knew a whole lot about until recently. My entire understanding of ‘The Change’ was that your periods stop and you might get a little hot sometimes. Like a lot of women, I’ve spent the last decade or so resenting that time of the month and everything it puts my body through. To me, menopause seemed like a welcome reprieve. Wrong. According to The British Menopause Society, more than 75% of women experience multiple symptoms when they go through menopause; a quarter of those describe their symptoms as severe, and from what I can tell, not nearly enough of us are talking about it. It’s a phase of life that directly affects half the population, yet seemingly most of us are woefully unprepared for it.
Considering it can cause relationships to break down, drive high-powered women to quit their jobs, convince us we’ve got Alzheimer’s or send our emotions so haywire we don’t know whether to cry or smash something, I’m dumbfounded that so many of us know so little. “It’s hugely important to know as women what to expect.” says Meera Boghal, a menopause specialist who provides bespoke programs to help women manage their symptoms. “We’ve got to have that education so we’re not ignorant or feeling alone or lost. A lot of women come to me in tears because they just don’t know what’s happening to them”.
Personally, menopause has always been something I associated with getting old. I overheard a fellow cold water swimmer joke that now would be the only time a hot flush could actually come through for a gal when it dawned on me – that can’t be the case. “Perimenopause can begin from anywhere between your late 30s to early 40s” Meera continues. “But if you’re experiencing symptoms under the age of 45 it’s very common for GPs to dismiss them. It’s absolutely not their fault, they just don’t have the expertise or the time to join the dots so it can be very hard.”
For 45-year-old Ange Brennan, cold water swimming has been “absolutely life-changing” Before taking it up Ange suffered from hot flushes, night sweats, low moods and debilitating joint pain. She describes the moment she hits the water as ‘euphoric’ and ‘magical’. Her joint pain has vanished. “I used to not be able to open my left hand properly, but now I can, and I haven’t had a steroid injection for it in two years. I’m sleeping better, I don’t get oppressively hot anymore and I feel more energised. It really is transformative.”
This month marks a year since Natalie Sydey, aged 53, started dipping. She’s been perimenopausal for around five years and is adamant cold water alleviates the brain fog. “I’ve been struggling with feeling I’m not very good at my job. If you’ve been a capable woman who has made her mark in a male-dominated industry you want to hold onto that, but you start to doubt yourself when your head is all over the place.” She’s in a much better place after acknowledging her diagnosis. Now taking steps to make her day-to-day a little easier she says she wishes she’d had a better understanding of how menopause would affect her earlier in life. Having a sympathetic employer has certainly helped, she explains. Forming a support group and sharing her experience with other colleagues going through this tumultuous time has been cathartic and encouragingly they’re braving a chilly dip too. “You feel alive, it’s so uplifting. It really helps with all my symptoms. I still can’t believe it has such an impact.”
They’re not alone in their ardour for cold water therapy. It seems pandemic-induced pool closures have inspired thousands of people to take it up. According to The Outdoor Swimming Society, soaring numbers of people across the globe now regularly immerse themselves in water below 15 degrees for the good of their mental health. I could wax lyrical about the joy of it as a wild swimmer myself, but it appears to be having an extremely profound effect on women going through menopause, with many reporting radical results because of it. “I’m not surprised at all.” says OBGYN Dr Nuti Bajekal. “In menopause, your body is very sensitive to temperature fluctuations so by exposing yourself to cold water you’re building up resistance to stressors that your body is subjected to when your hormone levels drop. Scientifically it makes sense, do we have all the evidence? Not yet, but that doesn’t mean we dismiss it. If it helps, you don’t have to wait for the science to catch up, do it. Just do it sensibly.”
Exercise and diet are hugely important for any ailments, it’s not any different for menopausal symptoms adds Dr Nuti. She believes an amalgamation of western medicine and holistic remedies like cold water swimming is our best armour for getting through this stage in life. “Nobody knows your body better than you, you’re the best advocate for yourself. It’s not one or the other, you mustn’t feel shame for choosing to use medication. Equally, just because you’re taking HRT doesn’t mean lifestyle approaches aren’t important. You’ve got to work out what works for you.”
Incredibly, cold water therapy is enabling many women to feel ‘normal’ again. I was shocked to learn of the tribulations many women face when getting to the end of their periods, less shocked to find that in true warrior woman style, most are hunkering down, trivialising their endurances and soldiering on as best they can. It’s baffling that even in the 21st century menopause is still taboo. The shroud of secrecy is even more embedded in cultures of ethnic minorities. It’s not helping anyone and although it’s slowly being demystified, it’s clear we have a long way to go.
Knowledge is power, so let’s pass it onto the next generation. Give us the tools to handle what’s coming without the confusion. At least then there’s a chance we’ll be in for a smoother ride.