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Photographer Circe Hamilton

How I’ve handled menopause without HRT - Suzanne's article in The Times

by Suzanne Duckett

I had a fairly early perimenopause that started to present itself in my mid-forties. It started with mood swings, which added to the demands of being a busy, stressed working mother. I forged ahead, and it was only when I was further into the journey and experiencing real brain fog, low mood, confidence crashes and my memory being shot that I realised my menopause was in full swing, and I was not. I tried HRT for a few months but it never felt right for me.

I started to seriously look at this next important chapter and what I needed to support my mind, body and indeed soul now.  I will not lie, there were days when I felt more at risk of getting nasty diseases in my later years by not taking HRT but there were far more days when I was more concerned that slathering myself with exogenous hormones in HRT would increase my risks.

There is breast cancer on both sides of my family and genetic tests have shown that I need to be careful of endocrine disruptors, which HRT is in the camp of as far as I’m concerned. Even without the family cancer history, I would feel the same. Besides, the constant conflicting advice from expert to expert, study to study, lack of long term research here, even more lack of long term research there. I needed to own my menopause holistically, not pharmaceutically. Also, and here is the kicker for me, what happens when you come off HRT? It feels to me like kicking the problem down the road only to find a bigger problem. That is not my style, I like to tackle challenges at the root. Many women I know say they have been on it for years/will stay on it forever. I don’t believe we are designed to process these hormones way into our lives. 

Part of the decision to manage my menopause naturally, I believe, stems from being able to admit to myself: “Suz, you’re getting on in life, you’re not a spring chicken any more. Accept, don’t fight it.” And that was my first step to knowing that, while I was certainly not one of those women who was sailing through these uncharted, hormonally choppy waters, taking HRT, to me, was a denial of my ageing: wanting to keep the younger woman’s hormones flowing and to be an invincible, triathlon-running, go-getting powerhouse.

Instead, I felt an innate need to slow down and be content with who I am at this age and stage in my life, just as I did with pregnancy, nursing and other times when I needed to step back and nourish myself more. So instead I set myself regular nurturing activities. Now I meditate twice a day for 23 minutes, once when I wake up and again around 4pm. Sometimes I try to nap in the afternoon, but this is normally only practical on the weekends. Even taking half an hour just sitting and daydreaming at lunchtime has hugely resting effects.

I also focus on my breathing. I take a few deep abdominal breaths throughout the day. This calms, centres and relaxes me, and I believe it aids my body to maintain important processes for good health.

A few years ago I swapped the rather punishing forms of exercise that I did, such as running and ashtanga (hardcore) yoga, for qigong, an ancient gentle form of movement (the forerunner of t’ai chi). I find it wonderfully relaxing yet fortifying, with its combination of slow, considered movements, stretches and breath work, qi being, according to Chinese medicine, among others, our energetic life force.

I lift weights four times a week to bolster my bones. Osteoporosis was one of my worries with menopause, and one of the things for which HRT has been shown to be especially beneficial. Studies demonstrate that weight-bearing exercise can play a role in slowing bone loss, so I regularly grunt at my local gym. I can’t believe how much my weight-lifting sessions lift my mood.

I believe in walking in nature to improve how I’m feeling, even if that means just going to my local park, and this is the time when I turn off my phone. I swim in cold water where and when I can because I find it rejuvenating for mind and soul.

One of the biggest changes I made during my menopause was my diet. I eat plenty of flaxseeds, soya and edamame beans, garlic, peaches, berries, tofu, and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and collard greens. I have cut back on my wine intake. That was a tough one — I love wine — but these days I have smaller glasses at home, about 120ml at a time (175ml is the more common serving in bars and pubs, and 2.1 units of alcohol). The official limit is six 175ml glasses a week, according to most recommendations. I think that quota is too much for me, even if I do consume it some weeks. It’s a work in progress, but I’m definitely on a “drink less and not very often” mission.

When I feel I need more nourishment I have a session with my acupuncturist and get some herbal supplements from her, as she is also a doctor of Chinese medicine.

There is so much negativity and fear around the menopause. It can be extremely difficult, yes, and like all health issues some people suffer with symptoms more than others, but I have made the conscious choice to embrace this part of my life. In my view, it is a magical new beginning to get to know ourselves in a different, softer and kinder way.