“I have never felt stronger”
There are as many experiences of menopause as there are women, says 53-year-old Anne Hjernøe, author of Stærk Overgang (Strong Transition), who with communication, love, exercise and a healthy diet has found her recipe for quality of life in midlife.
With the launch of our new Firming Perfector Serum in 50 ml, created for experienced skin, we are focusing on the changes the female body undergoes in midlife.
How are you experiencing the menopause?
The way women experience the menopause differs widely. Most women are only aware of the three most common symptoms: insomnia, hot flushes and mood swings, but there are actually more than 200 different symptoms. It is said that there are as many experiences of menopause as there are women, but a rule of thumb says that approximately a third of women experience mild symptoms, a third moderate symptoms and the final third severe discomfort. I am one of the lucky ones who has not had any particular problems.
The first symptoms started when I was about 48. That’s relatively early compared to the average of 51-52. I have always slept well, maybe just with the exception of periods of stress, but suddenly I was awake at 4 am and couldn’t sleep and started sometimes to have brief, mild hot flushes – but I didn’t sweat so that I had to change my nightwear or bedclothes. Usually, removing my duvet or flipping it to its cooler side was enough.
When I wrote the book Stærk, Mæt og Let (Strong, Full and Light) 5-6 years ago, I started to exercise, changed my diet and lost about 20 kilos. I am convinced that that change of lifestyle helped me to keep the symptoms in check. If I’m out of sync for a while and am not eating healthily and exercising, I feel the symptoms much more.
How are you experiencing the menopause physically?
It is a slightly inexplicable inner feeling. A sort of irritation in the body as if it doesn’t recognize itself. It’s mostly a feeling I experience if I have neglected myself for a while, worked too hard and not slept properly. My skin is not as supple as it used to be and getting rid of soft belly fat is harder even though I exercise and eat healthily. But that is completely normal. Research shows that the reduction in estrogen can cause fat to settle on the belly.
But, again, it is so important to emphasize that all women feel differently. Many women believe that the discomfort they experience as part of the menopause is something they have to put up with for a short period. But most women are in the menopause for an average of ten years so if you are one of the women going through hell with sweating and hot flushes, depression, insomnia, joint pain and difficulty concentrating – or whatever else you may be experiencing – seek help. It does not need to be that way. Consult your gynecologist. They are the people who know best how to help.
There are many myths associated with hormone treatment, but so much has happened in recent years. Now women are given a small dose and are checked regularly. As part of the research for Stærk Overgang, my latest book, I was recommended to join a Facebook group for women affected by menopause. I have to say that the level of misinformation about plant estrogen and bioidentical hormones as part of hormone treatment that was being flung around was crazy. You really have to be careful about where you find your information. Speak to the professionals.
Do you do anything specific to reduce the discomfort of the bodily changes you are experiencing?
Yes, I have experienced that the cleaner I eat and the more I move around, the better I feel. Exercise has estrogen-like effects. I do combined strength training and cardio. That works best for me. As you grow older, you lose an enormous amount of muscle and bone density, and strength training helps me keep my body strong and my metabolism up. Some people believe that cardio makes the body better at handling heat and getting rid of it again because it is used to being used and to sweating. This means that hot flushes are not experienced in quite the same severe way. I also sleep far better when I have been exercising.
Sleeping well is the be-all and end-all. I recommend sleeping in a cool, dark room with a blanket within reach and ensuring that screens are kept out of the bedroom – or at least in night mode. It means that you don’t experience alarm and adrenaline in your body by lying there and becoming envious of other people’s lives before you have to go to sleep. Studies also show that the reflection and blue light from the screen inhibits the production of the sleep hormone melatonin. You don’t get that problem with a good, old-fashioned book.
I changed my diet a few years ago so that it now mainly consists of lots of greens, legumes, whole grains, fish, shellfish and poultry – and lots of leafy greens, which provide magnesium. This is how we should always eat, but especially in this period of life, it is known to have an incredibly beneficial effect. I don’t drink alcohol on weekdays but have it for special occasions and parties. You have to have room for variation. I have never been a heavy drinker, so it’s not been a problem. So far, this has been enough for me, but it is not like that for everyone, and then you have to reach out and get some help.
Has anything surprised you?
It has surprised me how little women know about menopause. How little we talk about it. Menopause is, after all, a long period of a woman’s life, and therefore it is a bit disappointing that it should be taboo. We are good at articulating all the changes that happen to the female body in pregnancy and when giving birth, but everything that happens in menopause is something we rarely speak openly about. That is remarkable because it’s natural that women stop being fertile at a certain point. I don’t know if it is because we associate it with something unsexy? It’s the end of fertility, the aging body, sadness, dry mucous membranes and less desire for sex. As far as I can see, there is ageism involved, which means that many middle-aged women feel invisible.
When I wrote Stærk Overgang, my latest book, and I explained to friends and others what I was writing about, I noticed how the men’s eyes, in particular, started to glaze over. But if I stuck with the conversation, they also started to chime in and tell me that this was how their wife was feeling too.
Something psychological happens to women in midlife, when you are faced with making choices and asking yourself if you are living the life you want. The children are grown up and moving away from home. You no longer need to be this service organization that brings the family together. Many women find that they free up time and energy to do something for themselves, but even if it is something they have longed for, it can feel empty and sad. It is called empty nest syndrome. That’s why it is so important that we talk about all these physical and psychological changes, so that we do not misunderstand each other. It can be difficult to talk about the fact that it is suddenly painful to have sex with your partner, but you can find another way to do things. I recently saw a wonderful headline in Politiken, where a sexologist reminded us that sex has nothing to do with penetration. Be creative and communicate with each other. This is a very useful suggestion for how best to handle these things.
Has this phase of your life changed you?
You often hear about the middle-aged woman who has suddenly just had enough. I was never a Goody Two-Shoes. I was never that person, so I cannot really talk about that. I have always been quite indifferent to other people’s attitudes and opinions about me, but I have become more certain about what I want to be part of.
I definitely have the feeling that I am getting older, but not in a negative way. Many women experience great sadness at losing their fertility because they associate it with their attractiveness. I don’t feel that way, and I actually just think that not having periods anymore is great.
For me, there are so many cool things associated with this phase of life. I can spend more time on my working life, work abroad more – I have actually always done that, but now I don’t have to rush home to my daughter – and the fact that I have got going so well on my fitness regime means that I have never felt stronger. All of that has made a huge difference to my overall well-being.