I lived with extreme perimenopause symptoms for years without realising

Lisa Perimenopause. (Yahoo Life UK/Supplied)
Lisa Barham started experiencing perimenopause far earlier than she anticipated. (Yahoo Life UK/Supplied)

Lisa Barham was a busy, confident and healthy stay-at-home mum of two until she started experiencing unusual symptoms in her late 30s. Here, she shares the trials and tribulations of early perimenopause and how eventually getting help led to a whole new lease of life. Plus, Dr Shazhadi Harper talks perimenopause.

"When I was 39, I started to notice some changes – they were small at first so I didn’t take too much notice," says Lisa from Essex, now 45.

These included slightly irregular periods, and more frequent stomach aches.

"A few months past, these symptoms gradually became worse, and I started to feel tired. A few months later, I also began to get dreadful acid reflux – a burning sensation when I ate," she recalls.

Worsening perimenopause symptoms

Perimenopause bloating. (Supplied)
Lisa suffered a host of extreme physical and mental symptoms. (Supplied)

"Nothing was like the bloating that started," Lisa adds. "My stomach would balloon, so it was incredibly uncomfortable and quite embarrassing, especially if I was wearing something figure-hugging. I looked like I did when I was six months pregnant."

Lisa's social personality suffered the consequences too.

"I’ve always liked going out, having fun with my friends and family, but the bloating became more frequent and uncomfortable, and it was starting to make me feel really down, so I’d opt out and say no to social occasions," she explains.

With a lot of her experience then also coinciding with COVID, Lisa was even more isolated, with time to overthink.

"It was like my whole body was being taken over and I didn’t know what to do about it. I began to feel down much more regularly and have random anger outbursts – not easy when also dealing with pre-pubescent daughters!" Lisa says candidly.

It was like my whole body was being taken over and I didn’t know what to do about it

Perimenopause skin. (Supplied)
Lisa says what happened to her face was the final straw. (Supplied)

The next thing was Lisa's skin. "It became really dry, blotchy, swollen and puffy around the eyes - I’d had a bit of hay fever before which had made it dry, but this was totally different. I looked like the elephant man!"

In this sense, lockdown made her not wanting to leave the house slightly easier.

But, dealing with it alone, she adds, "Months turned into years….I just felt like a wreck both mentally and physically. It all became too much and I was struggling to cope with these changes to my face, body and mood."

However, one thing was particularly hard. "It was the lack of confidence. I've never worried what people think. I've been very strong and got on with things. But I started questioning myself and friendships."

I just felt like a wreck both mentally and physically

Perimenopause skin 2. (Supplied)
Lisa was experiencing the effects of perimenopause inside and out. (Supplied)

Uncovering perimenopause

It was a good 18 months before someone suggested to Lisa it could be perimenopause.

"I knew about the menopause, but I think I was also in denial about it. I thought this was something that happened in your late 40s, not late 30s! And you also just think menopause means period stops and you get hot flushes, but there can be a lot more to it," she says.

I thought this was something that happened in your late 40s, not late 30s!

"I finally decided I needed to tackle it head-on, two years ago.

"I booked an appointment with the GP. I’d put it off thinking they would just dismiss me and tell me to alter my diet. But eventually, after blood tests, perimenopause became apparent and women have really varied symptoms during the menopause. I was prescribed HRT and omeprazole for my acid heartburn."

Blood tests only give an indication of hormone levels, so while perimenopause can't be proved 100%, the guidance is now GPs need to go on women's symptoms, after other things have been ruled out.

Menopause Lisa. (Supplied)
Lisa found it hard to talk to others about what she was going through, especially before she even knew what was happening herself. (Supplied)

"I know other people have gone and they've been a bit unsure if it is that, and then they've been put on antidepressants because they're not feeling themselves. I was quite assertive about it as I'd done loads of research," Lisa adds.

"But as the youngest in a lot of my friendship groups, I was the only one going through it. I lost some friends who weren't fully understanding, just saying we're all a bit hormonal. Yes we are, but this was a different level." Lisa credits her husband for being very understanding when she "wasn't always the nicest or most rational".

As the youngest in a lot of my friendship groups, I was the only one going through it

The perfect mix of management tools

Perimenopause Lisa. (Supplied)
Lisa is in a much better place now. (Supplied)

"HRT helped a lot with the tiredness and mood swings, but I was still struggling with the bloating and my skin," says Lisa, at which point she began exercising again to help improve her mood and energy levels.

A friend also suggested last year she try and improve her gut health alongside HRT, with there a strong link between the gut and hormones, and she now takes a The Better Gut probiotic, helping to improve her acid reflux, bloating and skin.

"I'm not saying I have a six pack. But I certainly don't look pregnant anymore," she adds.

A new lease of life

Menopause Lisa. (Supplied)
Early perimenopause led Lisa to reevaluate and change her life. (Supplied)

With the right help, perimenopause (even when it arrives early) doesn't have to be all doom and gloom. "It can be the opposite," says Lisa.

"I just wish I’d started treating it sooner! I feel so much better. I’m saying yes to going out again, I have more energy and confidence and I'm working now, so things are really looking up!

"My experience gave me the confidence to get back into work. It pushed me out of my comfort zone."

She started her own business, attending networking events and selling her admin services.

My experience gave me the confidence to get back into work. It pushed me out of my comfort zone

"My children were older [she hopes her experience will also help educate them more], and you suddenly think, I need something else. I would never be sat at home watching telly and doing nothing, but being in a better place made me want to go out and do something for myself," Lisa explains.

"If perimenopause hadn't happened when it did I might never have done it. It made me reevaluate my life."

Lisa's advice to others is: "Don't suffer. We are all different and perimenopause and menopause at any age is okay. I’d urge all women to speak to their doctor as soon as symptoms begin.

"But do your research, be strong, and confident. I think most women know their bodies."

What age does perimenopause occur?

female doctor explaining the prescription
It's important to be aware of any changes in your body. (Getty Images)

"Menopause is when the reproductive phase of a woman’s life ends and she has not had a period for twelve months. Peri (meaning around) is the years leading up to the menopause, when the ovaries start to wind down and hormones start to behave in a haphazard way," explains Dr Shazhadi Harper, resident GP at The Better Menopause.

"Perimenopause can occur up to 10 years before the menopause, around 40-45 years.

"5-8% of women can experience symptoms earlier than that, in their mid-30s. It’s important to look at your family history. It’s not always the case, but if your mum went through an earlier menopause, you may too."

Dr Harper says lots of women are still unaware symptoms can start early. "Whilst awareness is much greater than it has been, there is still a stigma attached to menopause and an element of denial because of this. It's important to have an understanding of your body, particularly if you are considering starting a family in your mid-late 30s."

Perimenopause symptoms

Concept of depression, loneliness, problems of adolescence
Symptoms can be mental and physical. (Getty Images)

Typical perimenopause symptoms are:

  • anxiety

  • flat mood

  • feeling overwhelmed

  • changes to skin (often dryness and itching)

  • gut issues like bloating, constipation

  • acid reflux

"The gut has become known as the second brain for good reason, and the link between hormones and the gut is hugely important," says Dr Harper.

Perimenopause treatment

A female sportsperson with black plastic water bottle doing sport outside in the countryside. (Getty Images)
Perimenopause can improve with treatment and lifestyle changes. (Getty Images)

"The treatment for perimenopause is sometimes known as MHT (medical hormone treatment) which is the same as HRT (hormone replacement therapy), but in perimenopause the regime is a little different," Dr Harper explains. Ask your doctor about this and how it works.

"Women are prescribed treatment according to their symptoms."

HRT may not address every symptom, but will certainly improve some . "Every woman has a different menopause experience. There are many other factors to consider like emotion, stress, lifestyle and diet too," adds Dr Harper.

"Supplementing prescribed treatment with a probiotic like The Better Gut, omega 3, vitamin D and magnesium can also be hugely beneficial.

"It’s important for women to know that what they are experiencing is perfectly normal. Hormones are powerful chemical messengers that have a huge impact on our lives. When it comes to any menopause matters, knowledge is power."

Read more: 'Living with brain fog made me think I had early onset dementia' (Yahoo Life UK, 7-min read)