As women, our bodies go through quite a few changes from puberty to menopause. The main culprits? Our hormones. And while many of the symptoms we undergo from shifting hormones are physical, from hot flashes to disrupted periods, others are mental or emotional.
This is because our brains and our hormones are intricately linked, and a change in one has a direct impact on the other. So if you’ve felt “off’ or like your mind is in a cloud post-partum or during menopause, it means your brain is responding to a sudden hormonal change and needs time to adjust. It’s a normal experience most women will have throughout their lives.
How hormones impact our brain
Our hormones are part of the endocrine system, which helps regulate how our bodies function and respond to external factors. The endocrine system produces hormones through glands, like your thyroid, and sends them throughout the body to increase or decrease processes, like your heart rate. Our brain has receptors for hormones which means as they act, processes in our brain fluctuate as well.
We know full well that our hormone levels do not remain stable over time. And that’s ok! Our bodies, and brains, are meant to shift and change as we grow.
For women, the hormones that make the biggest impact throughout our lives are sexual hormones called estrogens which are primarily produced by our ovaries. Or more specifically, the strongest of the three types of estrogens, estradiol. Estrogens, in addition to playing the main role in a woman’s reproductive system and development over time, also increase or decrease our levels of GABA, serotonin, and dopamine in the brain. These are chemicals that control our mood and mental function and change along with rising and falling hormones.
Neuroplasticity: Hormones and our changing brains
What’s fascinating is as our hormones change throughout our lives and reproductive events, our brain physically changes as well. This is called neuroplasticity. Researchers dedicated to studying the impact of women’s hormones on the brain found that two key areas of our brain, the hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex, change the size by high and low estrogens. The more estrogens we have, the larger these areas become. And since both of these regions of our brain play key roles in memory and mood, it’s normal to notice both affected as you experience both the monthly changes and the major reproductive shifts in your body as you age.
Hormones, our brain, and menopause
Menopause, the final hormonal shift all women’s bodies undergo, brings with it a wide range of symptoms. You may have experienced some brain-related symptoms including insomnia, depression and anxiety, and the infamous “brain fog.” During menopause, estrogens begin to decline not slowly, as testosterone declines in men, but quite dramatically over a shorter period. And as our estrogens decrease, sometimes by 90%, our brain changes once again.
It’s important to know that while you may feel more tired or not yourself during menopause, your cognitive ability remains much the same. Studies prove our mental acuity is just as strong even as parts of our brains change in size and hormonal processes decrease. It takes our bodies time to adjust to these hormonal changes during menopause, and that includes our brains. We have to give ourselves time to not only be patient with ourselves during this transition but to understand we won’t always think or feel this way.
Here’s another piece of good news. Reports share that higher levels of estrogens throughout our lives work to protect our neurological functions. Estrogens, though the driver of many of our symptoms are “neuro-protectors” for the way they function in our brain to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Protecting your brain during menopause
Knowing that more estrogens help protect our brain and that we experience a decrease in estrogen during menopause, is there anything we can do to better protect our brain during this transition? While it may be tempting to leap at the chance for hormonal therapy, it’s not yet recommended to boost cognitive function during menopause.
At the moment the best recommendation for women concerned about how their hormones are impacting their mental health and cognition during menopause is to examine their lifestyle. Are you getting enough sleep? Are you keeping stress, as much as possible, to a minimum? While it may seem like our endocrine system is in a world of its own, we do have the ability to influence our hormones to an extent by caring for ourselves well.
Knowing how our brain changes along with our shifting hormones give us a better understanding of why our mental health and cognitive function change throughout our lives.