Letitia Wyngaard, 49, has been feeling the symptoms of menopause since the age of 40. Picture: Supplied
Ever heard the old adage that life begins at 40?

While this saying may be true for many, as this age is associated with maturity and most us knowing exactly what we want in life and are not afraid to ask for it, for some women this age may spell the beginning of a very difficult period.

As the ostrogen gradually takes a dip, some women may start to experience awful changes in their bodies such as mood swings, night sweats, hot flushes and sleep disturbances.

This period is known as perimenopause or menopause transition, and for many it can be characterised by menopausal side effects, including irregular periods, fatigue, a dry vagina and lower sex drive among others.

While perimenopause can last several months for some women, for many it can continue up to 10 years before the actual menopause sets in. Menopause is when a woman’s ovaries stop releasing eggs.

Because perimenopause often takes place while we still have periods it can lead to confusion for many. While it mainly affects women in their 40s, for some it can start in their 30s.

Because perimenopause often takes place while women still have their periods, it can lead to confusion. For a Cape Town woman, * Charlene Botha, 46, this period started quietly about four years ago with her not being able to cope with summer heat .

“This was a problem where I was working, as I was expected to be outdoors a lot! However I found the hotter the weather became, the more often I had hot flushes. It interfered with my relationships with my co-workers as I needed Arctic temperatures from the aircon and they found it way too cold. Around that time I also found I could get angry much quicker than usual,” she said.

Not only does she find it difficult to sleep, Botha says when she wakes up she is often tired and her skin has become dryer. “I have never had an easy time with periods.....they have always been ridiculously painful so the prospect of never having them again sounds good yet I also feel sad about it as I realise that I am moving past my youth into the ‘middle-aged’ part of my life.’’

She is not alone. Letitia Wyngaard, 49, has been feeling the symptoms of menopause since the age of 40. For her it started as a hormonal imbalance and extreme mood swings.

“I would become too emotional and depressed my life became a roller coaster ride. The symptoms intensified and as the years went by hot flushes came. It felt like my body was heating from inside...all of this was very confusing and I became depressed,” she said.

She too is experiencing sleeping disturbances.

“My sleeping patterns are not great. I never sleep beyond 4:30am even when I’m not working on weekends. The downside of sleep deprivation is that it can leave you feeling lethargic and cranky, but I’ve made peace with it. I realise that I’m getting older,” she said.

Dr Peter De Jong, a Cape Town gynaecologist , said it was true that the onset of menopause was starting much earlier in life.

“It is an emotional time, since the woman goes from the reproductive stage to the non-reproductive stage of life. However, they can still be productive!” he said.

Dr Peter De Jong, a Cape Town gynaecologist. Picture: Mxolisi Madela.INLSA

De Jong said adopting a healthy lifestyle that involved regular exercise and a healthy diet were the first options that doctors considered to control the symptoms of menopause while menopausal hormone therapy was second to healthy lifestyle options. Hormone replacement therapies (HRT) remain controversial though with estrogen-only therapy for instance believed to increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

De Jong said estrogen therapy could be safely used if administered by knowledgeable medical practitioners and patients were carefully monitored. But some women such as Botha are not taking any chances and prefer non-medicated ways to ease their symptoms.

“I am not allowed to be on the contraceptive pill as it thickens my blood and I would be at risk of blood clots. I have had lung clots in the past. Apparently I cannot use hormone replacement therapy as it too will thicken my blood. But my doctor has given no other ideas of what to take,” she said.

In her case she uses raw sweet potatoes, which she adds to her breakfast cereal or yoghurt.

“I have had a fairly good break from any hot flushes this winter. But with summer coming up I will have to eat raw sweet potato again... a golf ball sized piece for 3 days in a row. After that I find that the flushes dissipate,” she said.

De Jong added that many women preferred natural treatments to ease the symptoms rather than medication.

* Not her real name.