Did bodybuilding bring on my early perimenopause?

Adele Johnston
Adele was a Scottish double gold bodybuilding champion
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When Adele Johnston was a bodybuilder she was on gruelling diets and fitness regimes that left her hungry and exhausted all the time.

The Scottish double gold bodybuilding champion's hair began to fall out, she had bleeding gums, heart palpitations, itchy skin and painfully swollen genitals.

After years of scans and painful tests it was discovered these were symptoms of early perimenopause - the stage before a woman's period stops.

On average, it starts when women are 46 years old. Adele, a mother-of-two from Fife, was in her early 30s.

"For years and years I was pushing my body beyond its limits physically and mentally. Bodybuilding is an extreme sport and I wasn't healthy," she told BBC Scotland News.

"You could see my ribs and my bone structure, I was emaciated. How my body looked was not nice and healthy and I went against my intelligence and knowledge to put myself through those gruelling diets.

"I was always hungry and was never satiated."

Adele Johnston
Adele Johnston with her husband Sean and twin daughters, Clara and Shannon

At 5ft 8ins (1.7m), Adele was only 8stones 3lbs (53kg) as a bodybuilder - two stones lighter than she is now.

"I've started to question why I went into an early perimenopause and have asked many doctors if it was due to my bodybuilding and they said 'It is possible but we don't have the research," she said.

Dr Heather Currie, a specialist gynaecologist at NHS Dumfries and Galloway, suggested the extreme bodybuilding could have caused Adele's menstrual cycle to "stall".

"Anything in extreme you have to question if that is going to have other effects and what I often talk about is everything in moderation," she said.

"Any over excess or excess of not enough of something is not going to be good overall.

"If the whole cycle is able to stall then you could see why some people might have symptoms [of perimenopause]."

Dr Currie, who advises the Scottish government on the menopause and women's health, suggested the ovaries could "return to normal" once Adele stopped bodybuilding.

"Bodybuilding could have influenced it but she will never know," she added.

Adele Johnston
Adele now runs a menopause business and training academy as the Menopause Coach

Adele has now given up bodybuilding - but she has also been put on HRT and a Mirena coil, which completely stops her monthly periods, to help her perimenopausal symptoms.

The 40-year-old is finally feeling better and is not prepared to come off the medication to check whether her cycle has recovered.

"I suffered from horrific perimenopause symptoms," she said. "I had heart palpitations and thought I was having a heart attack, I couldn't sleep at night so was exhausted, I had cold sweats and I was itchy all over my body.

"I had so much pain in my vulva I had to stand at my desk at work. I had abdominal bloating and bleeding gums and was losing my hair. It was very traumatic.

"Because I have the Mirena coil and my hormones feel stable, I'm not prepared to remove it to check if I'm having a bleed."

What is the perimenopause?

The menopause is when women's periods stop, which normally happens around the age of 51.

The lead-up to this happening, when periods become irregular, is known as the peri-menopause. It starts, on average, at 46.

This is when many women notice their periods becoming unpredictable or heavy, and have feelings or physical problems they haven't experienced before.

When periods haven't happened for 12 months, you have reached menopause.

Vicky McCann, the chairwoman of the British Natural Bodybuilding Federation, said any potential link between bodybuilding and the early perimenopause was a "very interesting subject".

The 54-year-old said: "I have been competing for 30 years and have only had signs of menopause in the last three years.

"I had no issues up until then and I have dieted and trained all my life. I can think of about three other people my age who have also had no problems.

"However, the thing is people are all unique, it's an interesting subject."

Jessica Watson, co-founder of menopause education organisation, Gloriah, said she had encountered many stories like Adele's.

"There is an urgent need for greater recognition of, and research into, the causes of early menopause - which is at the heart of what we are campaigning for," she added.

'I could barely function'

Adele is now a menopause coach after resigning from her job as an operational resilience manager in an investment bank.

"My debilitating symptoms eventually forced me to leave my job," she said.

"The company I worked for couldn't support me in my needs when I was going through perimenopause.

"I'd asked for six weeks of reduced hours while I adjusted to being on HRT and they refused.

"I was so unwell I could barely function. So my husband Sean said leave and we would work it out."

Adele said she was nervous leaving her job.

"It was petrifying to say goodbye to my salary, pension, benefits and career path, but I saw it as an opportunity to retrain as a menopause coach, using what I'd been through to help others."

She added: "Bodybuilding is a glitzy and glamourous sport but behind the stage we have to be mindful of the health implications."