Three out of four menopausal women experience symptoms that impact their quality of life, yet as many say they feel unprepared for the menopause and lack knowledge on how best to manage symptoms.
Dr Kelly McNulty, a postdoctoral researcher at the Technological University of the Shannon (TUS), Athlone campus, is about to embark on a two-year research journey to figure out how best to support women’s health throughout the menopause.
Funded by UPMC, Dr McNulty says she’s setting out with the goal of “delivering for women” as they navigate what can be an especially challenging time in their lives, characterised by “fluctuating hormones”, “mood swings”, and “hot flushes”.
While the average woman hits the menopause in her early 50s – with menopause classified as being “one year without a period” – symptoms often begin much earlier, when women enter perimenopause.
According to Dr McNulty, this typically happens at the age of 45, lasting four to seven years, and presents with a wide range of symptoms which can feel like “experiencing puberty all over again”.
“Your hormones start widely fluctuating,” Dr McNulty explains, “and you might find your menstrual cycles getting shorter or longer or you might experience more symptoms and then bleeding might get heavier or lighter.”
“If you don’t necessarily understand fully what’s happening, there can be a lot of anxiety around it.”
It is during this “window of opportunity” that Dr McNulty is targeting her research efforts, with the aim of using exercise, nutrition and mental health interventions to help women better cope with or mitigate symptoms.
Her interest in the area of women’s health stems from her background in sports science, she explains, having completed a degree in the subject before going on to achieve a master’s in strength and conditioning and most recently a PhD at Northumbria University.
She expects her PhD, which looked at the effect of the menstrual cycle and hormonal contraceptive use on sportswomen in performance, recovery and training, will aid in the development of the new menopause lifestyle programme.
Dr McNulty will be conducting her research as a member of SHE Research, a group of scientists at TUS working to bridge the gender data gap by prioritising female-based research studies.
The research unit, set up in 2020, recognises the negative impact of sport science research being heavily skewed toward male athletes and takes steps to redress the balance.
Highlighting the extent of the problem, Dr McNulty cites a shocking statistic from a paper she’s written, which found “only six percent of the research was done exclusively on women”.
Even within women-only studies, she says there’s still more nuance needed: “How many of those participants were menopausal or perimenopausal? I’d imagine it’s an even smaller number again.”
“There are a lot of female-specific factors that we need to consider that obviously aren’t going to be the same with men, such as the menstrual cycle, hormonal contraceptive use, menopause, even things like pregnancy, nutrition and injury recovery,” she continues.
“We just haven’t done research like this before but in order to be able to fully support female health – whether it’s optimising the general wellbeing of women and girls or elite performance, training and recovery – we have to better understand it.”
For now, kicking off the research project, Dr McNulty is interested in uncovering “what are the actual barriers” for menopausal women when it comes to engaging exercise, one of which she suspects is a lack of knowledge.
She hopes outputs from her project will help contend with this and aims to publish her findings along the way on the SHE Research education hub, the first phase of which launches today (March 8, 2023) on International Women’s Day.
Several SHE researchers are feeding into the development of the new education hub, which covers topics like the menstrual cycle as well as advice for coaches of female athletes in relation to performance, training and recovery.
According to Dr McNulty, the kinds of exercise, health and nutrition interventions she’s developing for the new menopause lifestyle programme at TUS will tackle the preponderance of both physiological and psychological menopause symptoms.
“We know perimenopausal women can experience a wide range of symptoms, including psychological; however, women in post menopause, where we spend on average a third of our lives, might suffer from osteoporosis from the bone mineral density loss that occurs around menopause.
“With the fluctuations of oestrogen, you’ve also got the likes of cardiovascular disease to contend with which is the leading cause of death in women post menopause,” she explains.
“But these are things that we can potentially protect against with physical activity and nutrition changes.”
Once developed, the menopause lifestyle programme is expected to be made widely available to women in Ireland.
On March 9, following International Women’s Day, Dr McNulty will deliver a special webinar sharing her findings from her PhD, specifically the effects of the menstrual cycle and hormonal contraceptive use on performance, training, and recovery.
“Whether you’re a recreationally active athlete or training for fun or training at an elite level, this webinar is open to you,” she says.
This online talk is free and open to the public. Register here.