Menopause & Me: Skye Gyngell

skye gyngell
Chef Skye Gyngell won a Michelin star at Petersham Nurseries in London, then surprised everyone by suddenly leaving the restaurant. Looking back, she blames ‘menopause insanity’ and reveals how her whole life was turned upside down.

When did your menopausal symptoms start?

If I’m very honest, I went through a really difficult period between 45 and 48. I felt like I was completely unravelling and unwinding and I couldn’t work out what was happening to me. I couldn’t work out how everything had gone so wrong.

How was your life affected?

My marriage broke down and I left Petersham Nurseries (where Gyngell had won a Michelin star as Head Chef) after nine years – just like that! I didn’t even make a plan. I couldn’t work out how everything had gone so wrong.

When I was told at 45 I was perimenopausal I burst into tears. I said, but I’m 45! Then, for about two years I wouldn’t say the M word.

Did you realise at the time what was happening to you?

It was menopause insanity but I only see that in retrospect.

What do you mean by menopause insanity?

I left the house that I’d lived in for 15 years, the man that I’d been with and had a young child with, the job that I loved and had made my name at. I felt for years that if I left Petersham Nurseries I’d put a bomb under it because no one else could possibly be there, it was mine.

How did you cope?

I struggled. I left Petersham without any resources at all. I had about enough money to pay the mortgage for three months. I literally jumped off the precipice without wings. It was a very tough few years but I kind of got through it. I sorted myself out and it was all for the best.

When did your realise it was your menopause kicking in?

Only about a year ago when I looked back and thought, I was menopausal. But I didn’t know about the emotional effects. I knew that you might get night sweats and I probably had about six of those in three years. I woke up with my nightie completely dripping and I went and got a towel from the bathroom, took my nightie off and went back to sleep. I knew about hot flushes, but I didn’t get any of those.

It was terrible but nobody had told me about other symptoms. When I was told at 45 I was perimenopausal I burst into tears. I said, but I’m 45! Then, for about two years I wouldn’t say the M word.

Why was menopause such an upsetting prospect?

For me, it was the word. I had friends who would talk about it in public, but I couldn’t.

What were your coping mechanisms?

I didn’t reach for any help, I went inside myself. I had a lot of friends who were still in marriages, still had kids and I didn’t want to burden them. So I didn’t reach out, I just put my head down and tried to survive.

I don’t think I knew it was menopausal – and I’m reasonably well educated. There wasn’t a menopause support group, I didn’t have that connection of, ‘oh, you had that too…’

It’s very confronting and shocking. Your periods really change and become very heavy or they stop, five times as heavy as they ever were, and you feel terrible but you go into it blind. Horrendous.

Once you understood what was happening, what did you do?

There are things that you have to do, things that help, like nutrition. I’ve definitely put on weight and carrying weight around your middle for men and women is one of the worst places you can carry weight. It’s bad for your heart and it’s bad for certain cancers. It’s really important to make sure that you address that.

How did weight gain make you feel?

It’s ok when you’re 18, and you can diet on Wednesday and you’ll be fine in that dress on Saturday night. Do you remember that? And then it changes after babies. I remember I could almost eat anything after babies. But then it changes again. In your 40s and 50s you can’t eat the way you’ve always eaten.

I remember I was driving in the car and I kid you not, I looked down and there was a football in front of me. I’m not joking. When I’d put on weight before, I put it on in the bum and thighs, I’m a classic pear shape, but this time I just had this tummy. I started wearing big shirts and my daughter said to me, ‘Mum, you’re dressing like a fat person’ and I think I was.

How does a chef go about losing weight?

About three years ago I went online because nobody talked about putting on weight in the menopause and what to do when your body has changed and the way your body works has changed. I found a nutritionist in Victoria, Australia. She showed, through diet, what can you do for insomnia, night sweats, anxiety and for weight gain.

How did you change your daily diet?

I now start my day with hot water and lemon – I do a hot water, lemon and ginger. I have a green juice and I take flax seeds because they flush you out and make you super regular. Basically, that’s all I’ve done and I’ve lost over a stone. I lost all the weight. I don’t drink that much dairy now. I realised I probably had five flat whites a day – about a pint and a half of milk – so I went back black coffee.

What sort of foods do you eat now?

I’ve always eaten quite healthily. I eat very little meat, a bit of fish, mainly vegetables. For lunch I’ll have vegetable and olive oil. I’ve got a daughter who’s very healthy, so if I’m at home at night we’ll cook together, maybe make lentils, make a dahl and a few vegetables. And that’s all I have.

My appetite’s really changed and I’m happy with my weight now. I’m definitely not my slimmest, I was thinner when I was growing up, but I’m happy to be myself. That was a big change for me because that realigned how I felt physically about myself. Superficial as it sounds, I just feel more comfortable.

Do you take any supplements?

I start the day with Symprove, which a lot of people recommended to me. It’s a pro and pre biotic which you take for three months and it’s gut regenerating. So I have Symproof in the morning, and then wait 10 minutes and then I have hot water, lemon and ginger. That’s my tea.

What about exercise?

I’m crap at the gym and I’m never going to run, but I do Pilates three or four times a week. I don’t think about it, I just go and hand myself over to the Pilates trainer. I’ve provided myself with a framework, and I know that if I do these things, I’ll feel better.

Pilates for me is not about having a gym body, it’s about having a strong body. I work on my feet, and it is quite physical, we run up and down the stairs all the time here (at Skye’s restaurant Spring in London).

My Mum’s in her 80s and until very recently she did weight lifting. She does it three times a week. She’s just had to switch to Pilates because she had a shoulder operation, but for her 80th birthday she lifted her body weight, 62kg, in dumb bells. She’s amazing and inspirational. She looks after herself and I think that’s probably the most important thing.

What’s your attitude to your menopause now?

You can’t swerve it. I think you have to be proactive and think, this is what it is, nothing’s going to change that, so how can I do it mindfully and with enough information and enough strength to go into it confidently and challenge it? Challenge the perceptions of what the menopause is. I think it’s only because I have been proactive about it that I feel strong and good about myself.

What would you say to other women about menopause?

I think you have to really look at your ageing. There is no way around it, you are menopausal. I had to have a rethink and do quite a lot of self talk. I probably talked myself into confidence, because I definitely was ashamed, and I found myself on my own. The kids were leaving home and it was a very tough couple of years.

There is a way to get through. Remember that children’s book, We’re All Going on a Bearhunt? I loved that book. Every obstacle he came across he said, ‘You can’t go under it, you can’t go over it, you’ve just got to go through it.’ It’s an amazing little life lesson that book. You’ve just got to go through it.

Is there anything positive about the menopause?

All the crazy things I did with menopausal insanity were all really good and the best things that ever happened to me.

Leaving Petersham was the best thing. It was wonderful and amazing there but I needed to do something for myself and not work for other people.

I loved my husband, we did love each other but we weren’t good for each other. I never would have been brave enough to leave if I was sane –  I had to be crazy enough to leave. In a way it set him free and it was the right thing for me.

My menopause was…

A very dark tunnel but you have to go through it. Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, you just have to go through it. And you do go through it.

How do you feel today?

All of the stars have collided in my 50s, and I’m excited to see what else comes. We’re right in the thick of our lives, aren’t we and I don’t want to slow down. (As well as Spring in London, Skye is culinary director at Heckfield Place hotel in Hampshire.

I’m so much happier at 55. I don’t think I’m the same person as I was between 46 and 48, I just don’t identify with her. Now I feel through the menopause, I’m very happy. It’s different, but I feel happy and free.

I feel strong, very grateful and confident and independent.  

I have a level of contentment, not like I’m striving for something, in terms of working towards something in my career. I still want to work hard but I don’t have the insecurities.

I feel my feet are firmly on the ground. If I’m ever going to be the person I was working towards, I’m that person now. Now I’m here, whatever here was.

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