• “I think it helps some feel more sexual generally and could increase the interest in going back out on the dating scene if they are single,” says Arndt. (Flickr)
Hormone Replacement Therapy or HRT generally gets a bad wrap in the press for its associated cancer risks. But according to two women on HRT, the therapy has been a liberating godsend, restoring their sense of wellbeing, libido and sexual confidence.
By
Yasmin Noone

4 Feb 2016 - 11:44 AM  UPDATED 5 Feb 2016 - 12:23 PM

Of all the milestones a woman has to look forward to in her life, a first encounter with ‘the change’ is not usually one of them.

Karen Jaques recalls how her initial brush with the symptoms of menopause in her late 40s affected her emotionally, physically and sexually.

“During menopause, I felt that I was the old Jaques but that I didn’t have the spring in my step any longer,” says Jaques.

“It made me feel like I was past my use-by date.”

Severe hot flushes woke her up in the middle of the night feeling drenched. Jaques used to get anxious very quickly about matters that never bothered her before and often felt mentally scattered.

“I think it [HRT] helps some feel more sexual generally, and could increase the interest in going back out on the dating scene if they are single.”

But according to menopause experts, Jean Hailes for Women’s Health Medical Centre, these symptoms of menopause are ‘normal’ for many women. During menopause, the production of oestrogen and progesterone hormones in the body decreases as a womans ovaries stops producing eggs.

Symptoms can include hot flushes, fluctuating moods, headaches, vaginal dryness and a thinning of the vagina wall.

“You lose the moisture in your skin, you lose your libido and you don’t feel up for ‘it’,” says Jaques.

“When I started going through the perimenopause stage of vaginal dryness, it was confronting for me because I’ve never had problems in ‘that department’.

“I thought, ‘I am not going to turn into one of those bitches who goes off the rails during menopause! And I don’t want to age’. So I thought, ‘what do I do’?”

Jaques decided to fight the change with Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT), which aims to replace female hormones as they decline in your body during menopause.

After a few months, Jaques explains, “I felt like I got back to me”.

“I felt like I was young again. I had a lot more self-esteem not looking at myself as ‘old’ anymore.”  

With her sexual and emotional mojo restored, single Jaques also started dating again.

“On HRT, I had no problems sexually. My libido was as it had always been. I get tired more frequently now [because of my age] and I don’t have as much energy but I think about sex and have sex on a regular basis.”

 

The sexual and social benefits of HRT

Cancer Council NSW estimates that around 600,000 Australian women use hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

Gynaecologist and a founding member of Jean Hailes for Women’s Health, Dr Elizabeth Farrell AM, says HRT can “improve wellbeing and quality of life by reducing flushes and sweating, improving sleep and increasing vaginal secretions”.

As for increasing a woman’s libido and sexual confidence, Dr Farrell says this is a proven fact.

She adds that the Melbourne Women’s Midlife Health Project also shows that improved libido and sexual function was related primarily to a new partner.

This comes as good news for older women, especially given the fact that online dating site RSVP reports that its 50-plus female base has doubled over the last decade, with the last few years seeing the highest growth. Most recently, its Over 50 & Fabulous interest group has clocked more than 51,000 members.

“I strongly feel that women need to look after their ageing vaginas in general – it’s not just about having intercourse.”

Annabelle*, who was taking HRT while dating men online, says the therapy was a social and sexual godsend.

“I know menopause affects women differently but in most cases when you have symptoms, you feel old and you can’t be bothered to have sex,” says Annabelle.

“The HRT keeps your hormones in place so you do feel sexy. If I wasn’t on HRT, I wouldn’t have the confidence to do all the things I do because it’s about maintaining a positive feeling of wellbeing. And hormones play a big part in that.”

Annabelle believes it was the HRT that helped maintain her sex drive, confidence in the dating world and sexual activity.

“HRT is a very good thing. I don’t think that I would be as sexually active and confident if I wasn’t on HRT.”

Sex therapist and online dating coach, Bettina Ardnt, agrees that HRT can “sometimes” improve your wellbeing, self-esteem and sexual confidence.

“I think it helps some feel more sexual generally, and could increase the interest in going back out on the dating scene if they are single,” says Arndt.

“…HRT helps remove the night sweats and restores the health of the vagina, which is a bonus if you have a sexual relationship."

However, she adds, “many of the older women I work with find dating is a daunting prospect. They need help in learning how to handle it, but many of my older clients are having a great time, meeting men and forming new relationships.”

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Ardnt also stresses that just as menopause and its symptoms varies woman-to-woman, so too do the effects of HRT, in its many forms.

“I strongly feel that women need to look after their ageing vaginas in general – it’s not just about having intercourse.”

 

Health risks and HRT

So what about the elephant in the room? Even though HRT has restored Jaques and Annabelle’s sex life and wellbeing, aren’t there dangerous health risks associated with HRT?

Dr Farrell, head of the Menopause Unit at Monash Medical Centre, reports that HRT carries “small risks of thrombosis in the immediate timeframe, and breast cancer, stroke and cardiovascular disease in the longer term”.

According to the Cancer Council NSW, combined HRT (oestrogen and progestin) also slightly increases the risk of stroke, heart disease, blood clots and breast cancer.

The group state that these risks only emerge between one and four years after women start taking the drug and advises that combined HRT should only be used to treat menopausal symptoms – and only for up to two years.

Oestrogen-only HRT has also been linked with a very small increase in the risk of ovarian cancer. Cancer Council NSW reports that of 10,000 women taking the drug, there would be less than one more case of ovarian cancer a year.

However, Dr Farrell adds, HRT is safe for healthy women aged 50 to 60 who don’t have risks for heart disease or other major medical risks. It can even “help prevent osteoporosis or be a treatment for it”.

However, like all hormonal treatments, even the contraceptive pill, HRT is not a cure-all magic pill.

“The hormones prescribed in HRT are similar to our natural hormones and can help bone density and maintain health but it should not be used as a medicine to stay off the passage of time.”

With no difference in risk between natural and synthetic HRT, Dr Farrell insists that women speak to their medical professional about HRT in the context of their personal health situation.

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Jaques, who has now been on HRT for nine years, says she isn’t worried about the risks associated with the therapy.

“There are risks with every medication, even antibiotics,” says Jaques. “I’ve also got four friends who have had breast cancer and they are now on HRT. It’s not the HRT that was to blame for the cancer. It was genetic.”

Jaques’ health is also regularly monitored by a medical professional. Under GP supervision, she goes off HRT occasionally to see where her body is at in the process of menopause.

“I’m a firm believer that it’s your life and you have to empower yourself to live it: take hold of your health, mind and body.

“You can lie down and put on weight and feel flat for the rest of your life, lose your libido and your self-esteem.

“Or, you can embrace that menopause is happening and do something about it.” 

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