NOBODY prepares you for the menopause. Nobody tells you that if you are going to have hot flushes or emotional instability they are likely to be far worse before you stop menstruating than after. Nor does anybody explain that waking at three in the morning filled with sadness or anger is likely to be not some aberration of nature, but a messenger announcing the menopause is near.
Because few doctors are trained in nutrition or understand the use of plant substances and natural hormones there are few alternatives for women. Most are immediately put on drug-based HRT.
Yet the experience of HRT varies widely from one woman to another. More commonly a woman will feel better for a few months, then report unpleasant side-effects: migraine, depression, weight gain. No wonder a recent Swedish survey showed that 48 per cent of women who go on HRT stop taking the drug within 12 months.
Unlike changes in diet and lifestyle, at best HRT is a stopgap which offers little in the way of strengthening and rebalancing a woman's body. Take hot flushes. Plant-based treatments from wild yam or angelica gradually eliminate them - but few doctors even know this. Similarly, sprouting alfalfa will help detoxify the body of excess oestrogens, horsetail tea is rich in bone-strengthening silicon and sea plants like kelp and wakame help build up calcium levels.
I object strongly to the propaganda that accompanies the sale of HRT. This practice makes virtually every woman a "patient", not only where it may not be necessary but even when it can be dangerous. It diminishes a woman's personal power and takes away control.
If only more women and their doctors knew that hot flushes, dry vaginas and early ageing can often be addressed more safely and successfully - and less expensively - by alterations in diet. Ideally women should stop eating highly processed convenience foods with junk fats and choose traditional herbal remedies instead: things like wild yam (from which many of the drugs sold for HRT were first derived), chastetree, motherwort and black cohosh.
In other cultures, the transformation in a woman's life between the ages of 35 and 60 is considered a journey towards a new freedom. It's a time of celebration where a woman's creativity until then bound to her biology is set free. The passage we make at menopause - like giving birth - is a profound one which can lead us to discover the real treasures of life.
Each woman is biochemically and spiritually unique. So is the inner journey she must make if she is to succeed in her quest for wholeness. This is not a package holiday where you pay your money, take your anti-diarrhoea pills and know exactly what to expect.
Leslie Kenton's new book, '10 Steps To A Natural Menopause', is published by Vermilion, pounds 6.99.
LESLIE KENTON'S menopause was a breeze. A natural, drug-free, non-HRT breeze. Sure, there were hot flushes, night sweats, blood trickling down her skirt in the boardroom. But she gloried in every natural, female moment. Loved the whole bloody thing. It's always good to know when someone's pleased with the way they've handled a tricky passage in life, isn't it? Mind you - I've handled mine pretty well. But more of that later.
Ms Kenton is an alternative health guru. A Cancerian. Dresses in white and floaty, summer and winter. She's a natural beauty. Great genes. She had an office near mine when she worked on Harpers & Queen. I used to stare as she sailed past and muse on her blonde good looks, billowing white shirt and four different children by four different men. But though she was writing "ground-breaking" health and beauty stuff, I thought her eccentric.
I might have found her irresistibly bohemian if she wasn't so deadpan serious. Her gung-ho appetite for men and kids was so at odds with the way she approached health and food. There she seemed to deny herself all the enormous pleasures of life. She became the strictest Mother Superior. Flagellation stuff. We will eat alfalfa sprouts, kelp, hiziki (don't ask), drink miso, horsetail tea. Natural. Uncooked. We will detox. This is the Way, the Truth, the Life.
Of course, I couldn't read her stuff. It sure as hell wasn't My Way. I'm up for hugely enjoying myself. Recreational sex. Steak tartar, bangers and mash, red wine at the Ivy restaurant. Friends who smoke and drink black coffee. The reason I gave up Silk Cut was simple: they cost pounds 4 for 20. The muscle I want to exercise is my brain.
Oh yes - my menopause. It never happened. A few years ago I went abroad with my mother, who's 5ft 1in. Her passport said 5ft 5in. "You shrink as you get older," she said. So back in London I ran to see John Studd who pioneered HRT in this country. HRT, among other things, helps prevent osteoporosis. (It's contra-indicated if there's breast cancer in the family.) Studd believes women shouldn't have to suffer pain or discomfort from anything gynaecological. He's my man. Since then I've had hormone implants. I haven't gained weight, probably because I'm an erratic eater, and my bra size is increasing. The last two lovers were the best sex ever. The kind of sex you promise yourself. (No, we didn't discuss our star signs.) Mostly I'm healthy and in an amazingly good mood. Is that normal in your menopausal fifties?
I admit I've escaped the natural woman thrills of blood cascading down my legs, satisfying night sweats and hot flushes. Call me a weak-willed, drug- dependent fool. Tell me I'm no Real Woman. Do natural, by all means. I wouldn't dream of telling anyone to live the way I do. But I'm just saying HRT seems to have worked for me. And I don't think, knowing myself and my body as I do, that an infusion of sage (to alleviate hot flushes) or motherwort (to moisturise the vagina) would have produced the same effect. I could be wrong. Sagittarians aren't infallible. We just tend to be smart about some things.