Updated: Mar 20, 2020
How much do you know about the female brain? If you are a woman, you certainly know that hormone changes affect the female body in many ways. The most obvious time points are hormone change phases that involve fluctuations in estrogen levels, such as the monthly menstrual cycle, the postpartum phase, and menopause. But what does this have to do with the brain?
Estrogen in the brain
Women are complex beings. Why would estrogen be any different? The role of estrogen in the brain is complicated, and scientists are still trying to figure a lot of it out. We are well aware of the importance of estrogen in female reproduction and the reproductive cycle. Estrogen is involved in many other body systems including the nervous system, endocrine functioning, cardiovascular system, muskuloskeletal functions, and metabolism.
Here’s a bit more of what we know about estrogen in the brain:
Estrogen gets around. Estrogen receptors are widespread throughout the brain.
Estrogen likes to play with others. Estrogen has relationships with other chemicals in the brain - neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine - and the cholinergic system, which all play a role in how we think and feel.
Estrogen = Wonder Woman. As a neuroprotectant, estrogen contributes to the integrity of nerve cells. Loss of estrogen is associated with mitochondrial dysfunction (weakens the power source of cells).
Estrogen is moody. Changes in estrogen levels can affect mood, but the research is mixed on the use of estrogen to improve mood or cognition.
Estrogen is a talker. Estrogen supports synapses, the spaces in between cells that allow them to communicate effectively.
Estrogen is pretty amazing, right?
Understanding Post-Partum Brain
Mommy Brain and postpartum brain fog are widely accepted as a normal experience after childbirth, though the mechanisms are not well understood. Pregnancy increases estrogen in the body and we know this can be protective for the amazing female brain.
There is also research to suggest that the suppressed immune reactions that occur during pregnancy (to protect the fetus), might actually lessen damage from inflammation later in life and protect the brain from dementia.
One certainty is that the lifestyle changes that come with a new baby can definitely impact a mother’s ability to remember, pay attention, and concentrate….causing Mommy Brain. Not to mention the impact from sleep deprivation, increased task demands, and generally figuring out a new life routine.
Menopause and the Brain
The average age of menopause is around 51. Menopause is preceded by a transition phase called perimenopause, the time around the last menstrual period, usually at the end of 40’s or early 50’s. The most common experiences (complaints) include vasomotor symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats which have common negative consequences such as sleep disturbance, irritability, and difficulty concentrating. Menopausal symptoms have been linked to changes in cognition such as slower processing speed and problems with memory recall, irrespective of mood symptoms. This is most often experienced during perimenopause and thought to be due to the impact that vasomotor symptoms may be having on the brain, specifically the hippocampus (memory center) and prefrontal cortex (controls complex thinking). The good news is that some studies show that the declines seen in cognitive functioning during perimenopause often diminish and a woman feels “back to normal” in these areas when menopause sets in.
Estrogen in an Aging Brain
“The age of a woman doesn’t mean a thing. The best tunes are played on the oldest fiddles”.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Women live longer than men, which means they may be more likely to experience age-related disorders. However, studies show that estrogen can be protective. For example, high lifetime exposure to estrogen preserves cognition. Higher lifetime exposure includes pregnancies, early menstruation or late menopause. Basically, the longer than estrogen is coursing through a woman’s body, the less risk she has for developing age-related problems such as dementia. This also means that women who experience early menopause, perhaps from surgery or a medical condition, have an increased risk of dementia.
Wellness Strategies for the Amazing Female Brain
“And I Still Rise.” ~Maya Angelou
Brain fog. Memory problems. Poor concentration and focus. Increased fatigue. Sleep disturbance. Low mood and irritability. Changes in life routines. How do women live their best amazing lives while hormone changes occur?
Here are a few suggestions:
Take some time to understand it. For many people, the more they understand about their bodies, the more they can take control of how to manage the changes. Draw awareness to the symptoms. Talk to your doctor and other women. Get a good understanding of what is typical, so that your experience is validated.
With increased awareness, you can begin to use mindfulness strategies to shift your mindset towards one of patience, compassion, and acceptance of the changes.
At Brain Space, we focus on 4 pillars that can help with hormone-related changes: Cognitive Wellness, Physical Body (exercise & nutrition), Sleep Hygiene, and Mindfulness. Does one of these areas speak to you? What small step can you take to support yourself.
Consider altering your bedtime routine to promote improved sleep quality
Try a daily breathing exercise to help train your nervous system to have a healthier response to stress or symptoms (hot flashes, Mommy Brain) when they occur.
Create a memory strategy that helps support your daily routine.
Reach out to a Brain Space provider to get support with managing cognitive changes, using mindfulness to shift your mindset around these changes, work on sleep hygiene strategies, and to support your overall brain health. We look forward to hearing from you! www.brainspacedenver.com