Managing menopause in the UAE: How does a fast-paced life affect the ageing process?

Dubai-based menopause coach Sharon James says women can empower themselves by taking small steps


Anamika Chatterjee

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Published: Thu 30 May 2024, 6:52 PM

Ageing hits women differently than men. Not just physically but also psychologically. For most women fear menopause. We know it will hit us all, but the knowledge of the monumental changes it brings with it can sometimes feel overwhelming. New studies and research, however, indicate that with proper care, our experience of menopause can be different. Dubai-based menopause coach Sharon James, who has been helping women navigate this period in their lives and preparing them for it, talks to wknd. about removing stigma around menopause and tackling it better with the help of nutrition.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

Tell us about your background.

I’m originally from Yorkshire in the North of England, but somehow, I knew I was not going to stay there for long, I was fascinated by travel; so by the age of 22, I left the grey skies for sunnier climates, travelling the world with my new career as a personal trainer aboard cruise ships.

I settled in Spain for another 10 years where I continued to work as a personal trainer and head educator at a training institute where I would educate and mentor people to become personal trainers.

Arriving in Dubai in 2008, I really didn’t know how it was going to pan out, I didn’t know anybody, but I survived and here I am today with my own company of 14 years.

What led you to become a menopause coach?

As a health coach with three decades of experience, I have successfully helped hundreds of people tackle weight management, menopause, and fitness challenges.

My sweet spot lies in coaching clients to reclaim control, and understanding who they are and what their needs are for a healthier future.

In a world flooded with wellness trends, I am a huge advocate for learning about our bodies so that we can make better-informed choices. I've seen the pitfalls of fad diets and the craziness of how we are influenced by how other people eat and train. That's why I encourage a grounded approach amidst the wellness industry buzz.

I draw on my diverse career, education in sports science and life coaching, personal training, and hormonal health and keep evolving to support others in navigating their health and well-being.

My own journey is the heartbeat of my dedication to women's midlife wellbeing. At 44, unexpected health shifts threw me off course — weight gain, changes in shape, and a dip in energy levels. Armed with my knowledge, I delved into the intricacies of menopause, focusing on facts over fads. This journey not only helped me regain control but also fuelled my desire to share my approach. Now, I specialise in working with women, focusing on enhancing feminine well-being and educating them on navigating the journey from periods to post-menopause.

Breaking the stigma around women's health is my mission, and I do it through engaging workshops that tackle PMS, periods, and menopausal symptoms head-on.

Believing wholeheartedly in the power of education, I advocate for it at all levels — from individuals and families to businesses, healthcare professionals, and even government entities. Collaborating with multinational organisations, I'm part of discussions about menopause awareness, training and data collection. My commitment to breaking barriers extends to thought leadership discussions, where I explore collaboration opportunities between the UK and the Middle East.

You have online courses for women above 40. What exactly changes for them and why do you think they need coaching?

Every woman will have menopause. There is so much conflicting information and the course that I provide will help women get a full understanding of this natural biological stage of life, with detailed information on what it is, why we go through it and, most importantly, what options they have to manage the transition with a positive mindset

The aim is to help women feel more empowered and be able to manage their physical and mental well-being.

It provides information with evidence-based lifestyle solutions, strategies, and habits, encouraging women that menopause is nothing to fear if you are well-prepared for it.

Women work with me so that together we can look at what challenges they are facing and we put a plan together to help navigate the symptoms — the main areas that we tend to work on are nutrition, exercise, stress, relationships (sex, confidence) and sleep. This, sometimes, is in conjunction with them seeing their GP or an alternative medicine doctor and taking MHT (HRT).

UAE life can be fast-paced. Does that make ageing difficult for women? Do women who have children respond to it differently than the ones who don't?

A fast-paced life and an unhealthy lifestyle can make anyone age, not just women. And even in a fast-paced world, menopausal women are thriving. Menopause is not about age, it's about mindset and resilience. I am 54, run two businesses, train for Ironman and have had my fair share of symptoms. I would say my life is fairly fast-paced, but I still manage to live a healthy lifestyle and I don’t look 54 or feel 54 because age is just a number.

Women are very resilient and can adapt to most situations. Yes, menopause can throw a spanner in the works, but it is a phase, and women can come out the other side stronger and confident.

What has been one of the most heartbreaking coaching sessions of a client you have tackled?

When it comes to coaching clients, every story is personal and unique to that client.

I work with some amazing women who have fought their own battles, not only with menopause but some who have been thrown into menopause due to cancer and rather than my heartbreak, I am empowered by their determination and positivity.

You experienced a major shift in your own body despite being a trainer for good 25 years. What did that do to your mind?

At 44, life was good. I was all about fitness and well-being, running marathons and triathlons, and generally living an adventurous lifestyle. But then, things started to change in ways I couldn't explain, especially around my waist. This change felt like a betrayal of my disciplined lifestyle.

It wasn't until the signs became too obvious to ignore that I realised something was up. My weight was creeping up, my periods were erratic, and my energy was dipping. I wasn't about to let this slide without a fight, I worked too hard to let menopause take control, and as hard as it was to come to terms with it, it was either control it or let it control you, so I started digging and kept bumping into the term "perimenopause".

So, there I was, trying to figure out this whole menopause thing on my own. The lack of good information led me to look at myself holistically and see what I could do to counteract what was happening to me. Understanding menopause has transformed my approach to mental and physical health. No more confusion about brain fog or mood swings; now I get what's happening and how to handle it. Now, with a wealth of knowledge, I've made it my mission to help other women navigate through menopause with confidence.

How can younger women better prepare themselves for menopause/perimenopause?

Self-awareness is key to identifying changes that start to appear in perimenopause, which can last between 4 -10 years.

Arming themselves with knowledge empowers and allows women to take control and, more importantly, they can make better-informed choices. Start to change habits around the four pillars — nutrition, exercise, sleep, and stress. Talk and keep the conversation as normal as we now talk about periods!

Apart from physical changes, what makes midlife particularly difficult for women as opposed to men, in your opinion?

I have taken a snippet from Virginia Woolf's book, which I think sums it up, I am not saying men don’t do some of this, but men don’t have the fluctuation hormones and symptoms to manage, whilst juggling all of this.

If society is built on the family unit, then that family unit is itself built on a mother’s oestrogen.

Her role as nest-builder, as tear-wiper, as meal-maker, as diary-keeper, as school liaison officer, as strategist, as a trouble-shooter, as a Jackie-of-all-trades and even (I hesitate to say it, but I believe that for most of us, it’s true at least some of the time) as doormat, is one of the cornerstones on which the nuclear family is constructed; and oestrogen, the hormone that courses through our veins throughout our childbearing years, is the lifeblood of our willingness to perform our tasks so selflessly. (Taken from Killing the Angel in the House by Virginia Woolf).

Women in the workplace also face several challenges during menopause. Physical symptoms like hot flashes, fatigue, and sleep disturbances can significantly affect their performance and concentration and can impact interactions with colleagues and overall job satisfaction.

Additionally, menopause is often misunderstood or stigmatised, leading to a lack of support from employers and co-workers, and sometimes even discrimination. These challenges may compel women to take time off or reduce their hours, potentially hindering their career progression and opportunities

How are men affected?

Men can be affected by menopause in several ways, often due to the challenges their partners face. Women themselves often struggle to understand menopause, making it even harder for men to grasp what is happening. Men are typically unprepared to respond effectively, which can strain relationships. In my experience, the key to addressing this issue lies in communication and education.

It's important to note that men also experience their own version of menopause, known as andropause. This occurs as men lose testosterone, usually starting in their mid-40s. However, it is not directly comparable to female menopause. Men typically lose about 1 per cent of their testosterone each year and retain the ability to reproduce, whereas women experience a more abrupt and significant hormonal change that ends their reproductive capabilities. Education and open communication about these changes can help men support their partners better and manage their own health as they age. Understanding and empathising with each other's experiences can foster stronger relationships and improve overall well-being

There is a deep-seated scare of menopause among women. Where does it take root and how can we address it?

The fear of menopause among women has deep historical roots. In the Victorian era, menopause was wrongly linked to insanity, leading to mistreatment and institutionalisation of women. This belief resulted in many women being confined to asylums unjustly.

Historically, shorter life spans meant there was little information about menopausal women. In Ancient Greece, for example, at least 50 per cent of women died by age 34. Additionally, the ancients viewed women as inferior to men, valuing them primarily for their fertility, so menopausal women were not a significant focus of study or literature.

By the 1960s, synthetic oestrogen therapies gained popularity, though their long-term effects were unknown. In 2002, the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) revealed that these synthetic hormones could increase the risk of breast cancer, heart attack, and stroke. This study caused millions of women to abandon hormone replacement therapy (HRT) overnight, shaking their confidence in medical interventions. However, by 2004, further analysis suggested that the risks might have been overestimated. Despite this, many women remain fearful of taking HRT today.

To address the fear of menopause today, it is crucial to provide education that dispels myths and offers accurate information about this natural phase of life. Encouraging open communication and creating support networks can help women feel less isolated and more understood. Additionally, promoting overall well-being through mental health support, proper nutrition, and physical activity can empower women to manage menopause more confidently. By addressing these factors, we can help reduce the fear of menopause.

What was the aim behind starting Mindful Meals?

After decades of working in the fitness industry and then menopause coaching, Mindful Meals was a natural next step. Many of my clients struggle with hormonal imbalances and gut health, especially during the menopause transition. Nutrition is a key pillar of menopause health, alongside stress management, exercise, and sleep. The majority of my clients were on other meal plans, so it made sense to integrate this service. Menopause, hormones, diet and fitness are not a one-size-fits-all issue, and neither should a meal plan be. We work with men and women, who are looking not just to lose weight but to enhance their health and wellbeing.


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