I was incredulous when my gynecologist told me I was in perimenopause.
Firstly, I actually had no idea what perimenopause was then after he explained it to me, I adamantly refused to believe it! You see, I was only forty-three years old and under the misconception that this was an “old lady condition”, not for somebody like me, a personal trainer who was fit and healthy.
When he asked me how many hot flashes I was having, I practically screamed in his face, “I’m too young for hot flashes!” I had no idea that my symptoms of fatigue, depression, and migraines were known perimenopausal symptoms, because nobody had ever warned me.
Prior to that appointment, I had been struggling with severe vertigo and vision problems. These symptoms would then lead to numbness in the side of my face, arm, and hand, leaving my fingers unable to pick things up.
I remember dropping my cup of tea and as it shattered on the kitchen floor, I was convinced there was something neurologically wrong with me. In fact, I was referred to a neurologist—then an ENT specialist, who performed tons of tests that were all ultimately inconclusive.
Not once in those two years of testing did the doctors connect the dots to the various symptoms. They never suggested to me that my problems could stem from my hormones.
Since that time six years ago, I have realized there are so many symptoms that come and go through the journey of perimenopause. Some symptoms are often not recognized by doctors and because of that, women don’t readily associate them with perimenopause. I know that my medical team failed me in this regard, and ultimately it left me feeling like I had lost two years of my life. Not every woman’s menopause experience is going to be the same. You don’t need to have hot flashes to be in perimenopause—I certainly didn’t. You have estrogen receptors all over your body, so as your hormones fluctuate and eventually decline, there’s a good chance you are going to experience a whole array of symptoms that don’t bear any resemblance to the menopause you heard about from your mother.
It’s Not All About Hot Flashes and Mood Swings
I found my misconceptions about menopause were pretty common: it’s something that only happens to old women. She’ll stop having her menstrual period for twelve months, then maybe have a few hot flashes, become grumpy and irritable, then eventually move on into old age, taking up knitting and drinking copious amounts of tea with her friends … (Honestly, the knitting and tea drinking are already a routine in my life. Yikes!) This oversimplification and disregard for the immense impact menopause has on a woman is thankfully becoming discussed more regularly and with it, women are becoming more aware of other seemingly unrelated symptoms.
Perimenopause is the time leading up to menopause (which essentially is just a day in time) and is when women are most symptomatic. Perimenopause can range from three to ten years, for some being an easy transition but for the majority of women, around 85 percent, a challenging time of symptoms both physically and mentally that cause a shift in quality of life.
I was thirty-eight when I had my last child and pretty much from that time onwards, started to feel generally shitty for a week or so each month. I know now that this was the start of my perimenopause. I had never had PMS, but each month before my period, which had shortened to twenty-one days, I was slammed with crushing fatigue and allergies. The allergies, I have since learned, are directly related to our histamine response in perimenopause (again estrogen is the culprit).
These were just mild irritations to be honest, annoying because they impacted the quality of my workouts, but gradually they got worse. Nothing I read, no one I spoke to, professionally or anecdotally associated this with perimenopause.
Then, along with my vertigo and migraines, I also started to feel other symptoms in my forties that I now know are associated with perimenopause, which included Raynaud’s: a condition of the vascular system that is very painful and causes cold hands, tingling extremities, numbness in face, fatigue, and incontinence.
So, What Are Some of the Unusual Symptoms?
I mentioned before that estrogen receptors are all over your body, so symptoms that seem completely unrelated to one another, are likely to be from the same cause: your fluctuating hormones.
So, in addition to the usual suspects of hot flashes, depression, and mood swings. Here are a few other symptoms you may not have considered:
Fatigue: You know that type of fatigue that you can’t shake off with sleep? It seems to seep down into your bones and can wipe the floor with you. This was one of my most frustrating symptoms.
Worsening allergies: Out of nowhere I was allergic to everything outdoors, when I had never had allergies in my life. Crazy sneezing, constricted throat, streaming eyes. All known symptoms of declining estrogen.
IBS: For this one, please imagine Grandma at Christmas dinner after she’s eaten all the Brussels sprouts.
Irregular periods: Heavier, lighter, more sporadic, or for longer durations (my most epic period lasted for 30 days, seriously, it’s like playing period roulette).
Aching joints and muscle tension
Tingling or numb extremities: For me this usually came with increased migraines and vertigo.
Bleeding gums and burning tongue
Hair loss: The majority of my hair loss was on my body, so I actually liked this one as it meant no more shaving my legs! What a result!
Foul body odor: Amongst my friends we have identified this smell as “pickled skunk”.
Increased facial hair: Think Nanny McPhee moles with a thick white fur that would impress Father Christmas.
Incontinence: I am so determined not to be an old dear in a nursing home, peeing my pants. This is a wretched symptom that can be avoided, but many women just don’t want to talk about it.
I kid you not, there isn’t a single symptom on this list which I haven’t experienced. Over the past eight years they have come and gone in some capacity.
Some completely stop me in my tracks, others are just plain annoying, but there is no denying the cumulative effect they can have on your quality of life.
It’s Not All Bad News
There are things you can do to support your menopausal journey! One of the first things is to become educated. Learn as much as you can about the cumulative effect of the different symptoms and how it can impact your quality of life.
Start documenting your symptoms, both physically and emotionally, along with tracking your periods. It’s a great way to start understanding your body and potentially planning for those days that you might feel unwell. Get the conversation going with your friends, peers, and family members. That old adage, a problem shared is a problem halved, really works here.
When it comes to some of your more intimate symptoms, having an understanding partner or friend can help you feel less alone. Menopause is a terribly isolating place to be at times, that’s why sharing with others can help lessen the burden.
Stay on top of your exercise, nutrition, sleep, and stress as much as possible. These four factors work as a whole entity to support your body at its most challenging times.
Sure, when you feel like crap, the last thing you want to do is go to the gym and eat a full nutritious meal. Curling up on the sofa with a bowl full of ice-cream sounds like the better option, right?
But getting outside in nature, going for a small walk, and eating something reasonably healthy will help you both raise endorphins and manage your stress, which are huge benefits in these situations.
The Bottom Line!
There is a distant light at the end of the perimenopause tunnel, ladies. Most symptoms should subside within five years of entering menopause, so essentially post-menopause. For some women, there may be persistent symptoms (like hot flashes and incontinence) that hang around longer, but these more unusual symptoms are likely to be linked with perimenopause.
If new symptoms present themselves in your forties, please don’t ignore them! Track your symptoms along with your menstrual cycle and rule out any other underlying medical issues.
Then make this a normal part of conversation with your friends, share your experience and knowledge, it’s in these ways we can normalize the topic of menopause and provide women with the support and education that is so sorely missing.