Health and beauty journalist Alice Smellie, 50, co-authored the book Cracking the Menopause: While Keeping Yourself Together with Mariella Frostrup in 2021 and co-founded the Menopause Mandate, the campaign group launched in spring 2022.
From her early symptoms of perimenopause to the ways she tweaked her skincare routine and the celebrities leading the charge to empower women, Alice shares her menopause journey with HELLO!…
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What were your initial symptoms of perimenopause?
“From my mid-forties I struggled to sleep and suffered from increasingly bad PMT every month. It drove me (and I should imagine my family!) nuts, but – as women do – I just got on with it. Then I had two months when, just before my period, I had anxiety for a full ten days. Having never experienced this before, I was suddenly overwhelmed by feelings of complete doom, and kept imagining bizarre and worst-case scenarios. Embarrassingly, I still had no idea that it might be perimenopause (we hadn’t written the book at that point!).
“Fortunately, I go running with my co-author, presenter Mariella Frostrup. When I mentioned this strange monthly anxiety, she, and another friend, who is coincidentally a menopause nurse, pointed out that it was almost definitely perimenopause and that I needed to hot foot it to my GP.
“I know that many have had a difficult time with healthcare providers, but my GP is excellent. She offered HRT, which I eagerly accepted. A week later I was using it and within just a few days I felt like myself again. The anxiety was by far the worst symptom I’ve had. Every now and again it resurfaces before my period, but recognising that it’s hormonal helps me to manage it.”
Which symptoms did you find most debilitating and which treatments helped?
“What’s interesting is how peri and menopause change with time as hormones continue to fluctuate and fall. I now get terrible aches and pain for a few days before my period. For months I thought that I must be getting Covid or flu, and then realised that it was entirely cyclical. (A more organised person might have used one of the excellent apps available to track symptoms…)
“Since starting HRT I’ve increased my transdermal oestrogen (on medical advice), and my GP also prescribed body identical progesterone (I already had the Mirena IUD), which helps me sleep.”
How did your skin change during perimenopause and menopause?
“My skin, which has always been easy to look after and has happily absorbed anything I slapped on, suddenly became very needy in my mid-forties. Over the last year, during which I turned 50, it’s become noticeably drier and now appears to require a skincare routine rather than a haphazard ‘whatever’s to hand.’
“Having been a health and beauty journalist, I’ve chucked all manner of lotions and potions onto my face, but the other thing I’ve noticed over the last few years is that my skin has become more sensitive to products, and I have to be a bit careful about ingredients such as retinol which can cause irritation.
How did you adjust your beauty routine, and which products do you recommend?
“I now need a more intense moisturiser, so the Clarins Super Restorative Range entered my bathroom at just the right time. A range designed specifically for menopausal skin, it contains organic harungana extract, proven to be as effective as retinol, but gentle on the skin, and a vitamin C derivative to brighten. I love the smell and texture of the products and the luxurious routine of using them morning and evening.
“The organic harungana extract in the Super Restorative Day and Night Creams doesn’t irritate at all, leaving my complexion soft and smooth, the texture more even and the appearance tauter. My skin tone has improved and my pigmentation is far less apparent on my face than usual.
“The Super Restorative Smoothing Treatment Essence – which I apply first day and night – is a light treatment lotion that contains hyaluronic acid and organic harungana. It preps skin for the other products, and I think my face looks immediately fresher and smoother after gently patting it on.
“When researching our book, we discovered that as the years go by, your features fade, so your eyes and lips look less defined. For the first time in my life I’m wearing eyeshadow; a dark brown as an eyeliner, and I also experiment with it on my eyelids to give more definition. I’ve also started to use lipliner as my lips are far less full than they used to be.”
What do you wish you’d known before experiencing menopause?
“I’m ashamed that I didn’t recognise perimenopause in my early forties. But my generation simply wasn’t told about it, and it was only when writing our book that we realised that perimenopause begins sooner than you expect, and often manifests with psychological rather than physical symptoms.
“Menopause wasn’t part of biology at school, it didn’t feature in the media, and it generally wasn’t discussed. I wish that I’d understood that when my periods, once as regular as clockwork, became closer together in my late thirties, that was the first sign of my hormones going awry.
“The other thing I didn’t realise is that menopause is not an ending. I’ve not quite reached hormone endgame yet, but I see these middle years as an exciting time of life and a time to have new ambitions, rather than a point at which I’d like to start slowing down.”
How can partners and family members help?
“I very strongly believe that menopause is something that we ought to all know about, not just women, but men and young people as well. How can we expect others to empathise and understand if they have no idea what’s going on?
Knowledge is the one of the best ways of supporting women. Listening and trying to understand is vital. Nobody wants their loved ones to suffer, but it’s incredibly hard to explain fluctuating oestrogen to those whose bodies run on testosterone.”
What did you do to help you thrive, not just survive, during this life change?
“I try to exercise most days: a 30-minute run on the treadmill or 30 lengths in the local pool improves my mood and helps me to sleep better. Ideally, I do a 5k run around the Somerset lanes with my running group – which is both entertainment and exercise.
“Diet-wise, I’ve started to eat protein at every meal, and I do my very best to include at least five fruit and veg a day. As we all know this can be tricky if you’re busy or on the move. Mariella has just given me a recipe for porridge bread, which is basically oats and yoghurt and is really healthy.
“What has unquestionably got me through the last few years are my family and friends. My relationships with them are actually the proudest achievement of my life. As you get older, you realise that good relationships are more precious than any possession, especially during perimenopause and menopause, when frank female conversation and general bonding are so needed!”
How do you think the conversation around menopause has moved on since the release of your book?
“There’s never been a better time to be in your forties or fifties (or beyond). Since Cracking the Menopause was published, the conversation around it has stopped being a whisper and become a roar, a giggle, or an intense discussion. The shame around the subject has hugely dissipated. I am so proud of what we’ve achieved, along with the other brilliant campaigners out there, and look forward to years more talk and action.
“Last year, a group of us – including Mariella (our chair), Michelle Griffith Robinson, Penny Lancaster, Davina McCall, Lavina Mehta, Lisa Snowdon, Carol Vorderman and the incredible and tireless MP Carolyn Harris, founded Menopause Mandate, a campaign group working for menopause education and care to be accessible and affordable for all women. Now that menopause is out in the open, it needs to be treated as a biological life stage and not an embarrassing affliction.
“We produced a book last October, which I wrote and edited. This included hundreds of our supporters’ stories, some of which were beyond heart-breaking – jobs and relationships lost, and years of suffering without solutions being offered. I hope that women feel more empowered now that menopause is being discussed. It’s fantastic that things are moving on, but there is a long way to go before we achieve equity.”