Lauren Chiren, 55, CEO and founder of a global menopause training company, lives in Bristol with her teenage son. While going through the menopause, for 18 months she only slept for two hours a night, suffered debilitating anxiety, extreme dizziness and couldn’t even remember the names of her colleagues.
For two years I'd parked in the same spot outside my office in Swindon, yet one day I left work and couldn't find my car. I stood, motionless, trying to consciously think back to driving into work that morning, clicking the key fob in the hope my car's lights would start flashing and alert me to where it was.
A few months later, I got home from work one evening, dropped my briefcase in the kitchen, said 'hi' to everyone, turned around and left as if to go to work. A friend who was helping look after my son at the time, called after me asking where I was going – I'd completely forgotten that I'd already been to work that day.
They were just two in a long line of alarming things that happened between my late 30s and early 40s which I had no idea at the time were related to the menopause.
Looking back, my doctor and I think I had a premature menopause, otherwise known as premature ovarian insufficiency (POI) immediately after I'd had my son at 37. I breastfed him for a year, then went back on the contraceptive pill – it was a type where you don't have a monthly bleed, so I had no idea my periods had stopped.
I continued to experience more common symptoms of menopause too, such as everyday forgetfulness and joint pains. There was one day in a board meeting with 17 colleagues, all men, when suddenly I couldn't remember how to say the word 'plan'. This was despite my role as a senior exec in financial services, managing global regulatory and compliance programmes, with large teams in the UK, USA and India.
Dizziness and palpitations
There were other symptoms too that I didn’t even know could be linked to the menopause. One time I was waiting to have a meeting with one of the finance directors, looking every inch the composed career woman in my sharp suit and killer heels, when I was overcome with dizziness – a feeling which had become increasingly familiar. A male colleague caught me as I passed out in front of 400 people in an open plan office and gently laid me in the recovery position on the floor until I came round.
Then there was the time I was in a meeting watching the clock tick down until it was over, while gripping the arms of my chair for dear life, my heart pounding in my chest, something I later learned was palpitations.
I forgot the name of a colleague I’d personally headhunted, despite knowing so much about her, including where she lived, her husband's and kids' names
I also had episodes where it felt as though my throat had closed up and I had to drink hot water to open it just enough to squeak out a few words to colleagues.
A low point was not being able to remember the name of a colleague I’d personally headhunted for her role, despite knowing so much about her, including where she lived, her husband's and kids' names, what car she drove and even what she ate for lunch every day.
Outside work, there was an 18-month period around the time I was 40 where I didn't sleep for more than two hours a night. On so little sleep, you would expect me to be exhausted and unable to concentrate. But on the contrary, I was hyperactive, hyper-vigilant and super-sensitive.
I know now that my body was running constantly on adrenaline and cortisol which is why I overtrained in the gym and worked excessive hours. It also made me suddenly question my own judgement and overanalyse things people said or the way they behaved in ways I had never done before.
On so little sleep, you would expect me to be exhausted and unable to concentrate. But on the contrary, I was hyperactive.
Despite having so little sleep, I remained my high-functioning self by day. I somehow struggled through, as many women do during menopause. I had no choice but to get on with life.
When I did fall asleep, the skin on my décolletage would itch so violently – another unusual symptom of menopause I'd been unaware of – that I’d claw at it until it was covered in deep scratches which bled. My colleagues used to keep a selection of scarves at the office for me to cover them up.
I was utterly unaware that menopause could affect women long before 50, and as I wasn't experiencing the more well-known symptoms such as hot flushes and weight gain, it simply didn't occur to me what was causing them.
Quitting my job
In the end, I was absolutely terrified that I had early onset dementia and at the age of 44 I left my job for fear of being seen as weak, vulnerable or a failure.
Shortly after I resigned, my GP diagnosed me as suffering from low mood. However, subsequent blood tests revealed that I'd 'just' been through menopause. I was hugely relieved to know that at least I didn’t have dementia, as I'd spent five years convinced that must be the case. Incredibly, within 24 hours of diagnosis many of my symptoms literally stopped. I even slept normally that first night.
I was absolutely terrified that I had early onset dementia and at the age of 44 I left my job for fear of being seen as weak, vulnerable or a failure.
My GP also prescribed the lowest dose of HRT and I took it for a month but for various reasons it didn’t agree with me. I believe every woman should have the opportunity to access HRT, but it just wasn’t right for me. My GP had recommended I take it till I was 51, the average age a woman goes through menopause.
I have since learned about the links between stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline and the impact they can have on the body when they are excessively elevated – especially during menopause – as mine had been prior to leaving my job.
As a former personal trainer, sports therapist and nutritional advisor with a background in psychology and mental health, I'd also competed at a national level in judo and 400 metre running events, so I was baffled as to why I hadn't known more about menopause.
I also began to devour information on oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone, histamine, adrenaline and cortisol and how they are all interlinked during menopause. I was determined to take control of my symptoms.
Changing my diet
I discovered that although I ate healthily, I wasn’t eating enough of the right foods for that time in my life. I lacked certain vitamins, sufficient good quality fats and proteins and I wasn't ensuring I was properly hydrated.
Nutritionally, what works for me is eating three meals and three snacks – such as nuts, yoghurt, fruit and veg – each day. I used to eat three meals a day but I found that spacing my food out and eating five to six times a day helped me feel more balanced and kept my energy levels more even right through to nighttime.
I made sure I included protein, fat and carbohydrates in every meal – it’s important to ensure we’re consuming a balance of the three main food groups to help maintain better blood glucose levels because when our oestrogen levels decline during perimenopause and menopause the body’s ability to manage blood sugar levels changes.
I’d spent years pushing my body with intense daily gym workouts and runs, which may actually have been too much for me as someone in menopause.
Adapting my approach to exercise
It was also time to acknowledge that I’d spent years pushing my body with intense daily gym workouts and runs, which may actually have been too much for me as someone in menopause. As I now know, it's vital to balance your training with recovery, the right nutrition, hydration and rest. We are all unique and will need different activity levels and challenges. There is no one size fits all.
Armed with my new knowledge, I adapted my training, making sure I still used weights to maintain bone density and strength, whilst including yoga and stretching to help with flexibility and strength, and building in periods of rest and recovery.
What I learned was that we can still have the physique and level of fitness we want during and after menopause, but we need to achieve it in a different way that's more in tune with our body's needs at that time in our lives.
I also began journalling, as another method to help me feel calm – it has been scientifically proven to tap into what's known as your 'parasympathetic' nervous system, which is responsible for the body's relaxation response. Studies have shown that journaling makes us more aware of the nature and quality of our thoughts. When we can slow down and direct our thoughts, it can bring about a sense of calm, clarity and help to relieve stress.
Helping other women
I thought I would return to working in financial services once I'd taken control of my symptoms, but instead I began using my knowledge to bring other women together socially to discuss menopause. I advertised menopause meet-ups for anyone who felt they’d benefit, including both friends and strangers.
I also launched a free menopause course called Menopause, The Basics, which I still run almost a decade later, and I also founded a coaching business called Women of a Certain Stage. We empower employers to become menopause-savvy and supportive, ensuring no one leaves their job like I did through lack of knowledge and support.
I want us to change the narrative around menopause and to recognise the more unusual symptoms so that other women don't suffer and live in fear the way I did.