Have you ever thought about the validity of associating menopause symptoms with the ovaries? Most people think of menopause symptoms and they think of the ovaries, and I guess they are correct, but have you ever looked at how involved the brain is when you consider menopause symptoms.
Hot flushes, night sweats, insomnia, memory lapses, depression, and anxiety – these symptoms don’t start in the ovaries, they start in the brain. These symptoms are neurological symptoms, associated with brain control and function. We’re just not used to thinking of them this way.
In fact, it is due to the communication between the brain and the ovaries starting to waiver that results in low sex hormone production and menopause symptoms. At an organ level, the ovaries start to retire and cease producing sex hormones. At a cellular level and in the brain, there is less oestrogen available to literally push your neurons (the fundamental units of the brain and nervous system) to burn glucose to make energy. This is important to acknowledge – oestrogen is heavily involved in providing energy to your brain.
When your oestrogen doesn’t activate or energise a certain area of your brain properly (due to a lack of oestrogen), those areas struggle. The hypothalamus (found in the brain) has trouble regulating your body temperature (hello hot flushes and night sweats), the brain stem has trouble regulating your sleep/wake cycle (hello fatigue and insomnia), the amygdala has trouble regulating emotions and memory (hello mood swings and memory lapses). These things start in the brain and are a direct result of an oestrogen decline. So yes, a lot is happening to your brain during the menopause transition (and it is all in your mind! But it’s also not all in your mind!).
Unfortunately, menopause marks a time of significant brain changes. But let me be clear, these changes are not cognitive declines. This does not mean that you will lose your sharp mind. It unfortunately just means that you lose a decent part of your brain energy. In fact, a brain scan of one lady’s brain before and after menopause (at 43 years old, and again at 51 years old) showed a 30 percent drop in brain energy levels. No wonder your brain is tired, you can’t articulate that word and you feel exhausted. Thankfully, no differences in cognitive performance was found before and after menopause. Basically, you’re tired, but just as sharp as you were previously.
Fortunately, like so many other menopause symptoms, they are only around while your body adjusts. Generally, once your body has adjusted to the change in hormone levels, symptoms start to settle. Once you are through the menopause transition, you can start to recognise yourself and your brain again.
But what can you do in the meantime?
Most importantly, attempt to make oestrogen more available within your body.
Literally taking oestrogen hormone replacement therapy has been found to be quite successful at reducing the brain symptoms of menopause (remembering, hot flushes, night sweats, insomnia, mood changes and memory lapses can all be linked back to brain function). Speak with our experienced team to see what dose, how often, and which bioidentical oestrogen is best for you.
In addition to this, make those health lifestyle changes that you know about, but haven’t had the time or brain energy to do. These changes are significantly important.
The foods you eat, how much exercise you get, how much sleep you get and how much stress you have in your life impacts your hormones – for better or for worse. It’s time to get proactive and change the things that you can change.
Stress can literally steal your oestrogen and make it into cortisol, your main stress hormone. Oestrogen and cortisol work in balance with each other. If one goes up, the other goes down. This means that if your cortisol goes up, your oestrogen goes down (leaving you stressed and mentally exhausted). It also means that if your cortisol goes down, your oestrogen goes back up again (leaving you relaxed and with an energised brain).
Reducing stress is important. Reduce your stress levels with deep breathing, exercise, books, music – what ever works for you. Me-time, or stress reducing practices, are very important. Daily.
What you eat is the fuel for your whole body. While there are many, many diets out there, and each has its own time and purpose, the Mediterranean diet is the diet to consider for your menopausal years. The Mediterranean diet includes an abundance of fresh vegetables, fruit, legumes, seeds, nuts, herbs and spices, and wholegrains, with an emphasis on fish, avocado and olive oil. There is only a moderate amount of cheese, chicken and eggs, and a minimal amount of processed and refined foods including sugar.
Not so surprisingly, the Mediterranean diet is rich in phytoestrogen foods. These foods (often plant foods), can act like mild oestrogens in our bodies creating a mild domino effect of positive changes. Flaxseed, sesame seeds, legumes, a number of fruits and even dark chocolate contain phytoestrogens, and each has the potential to help with your brain energy levels.
Quality sleep, and getting enough of it, is as essential to survival as food and water. Without sleep you can’t form or maintain the pathways in your brain that let you concentrate and respond quickly. Sleep is necessary for the removal of toxins in your brain that build up while you are awake.
As mentioned above, menopause can significantly impair your sleep. However, do what you can do to ensure you are setting yourself up for a good night’s sleep. Consider your food timing and quality, your drinks and caffeine, your stress levels, your exposure to light (and blue light), your habits and your tired cues. Control what you can control and contact an expert if you still need support. The Australian Menopause Centre team is here to help those with menopause related sleep issues.
Moving your body can have a powerful effect on your mind. Exercise, positively influences your brain’s ability to create new neurons, improve how the existing neurons work, and release neurotransmitters that help improve brain function. Further to this, exercise increases your levels of serotonin (used for motivation and willpower), norepinephrine (used for energy and concentration) and dopamine (used for pleasure, focus and decision making). The benefits of exercise are huge, and these benefits are even more-so important at a time when the energy in your brain is compromised.
Not sure where to start? Start at the beginning – by that I mean work with the level of exercise your body can handle. Over time, increase your intensity and duration. More specifically, if you want to focus on your concentration levels, consider yoga, tai chi and aerobics. If you are interested in improving your memory, consider aerobics, walking and cycling. If stress and anxiety are impacting you, consider yoga. And if depression is your main concern, consider aerobics and resistance training. Have a think, make a plan and start today.
Overall, menopause absolutely affects your brain. Or more accurately, your brain affects your menopause.
Its not just you, you are not losing your mind, you are ‘simply’ going through menopause. Often (and I hope that this article has helped) simply being aware of the possible changes that come with menopause can be enough to help you through the experience.
Mosconi, L. (2019), How Menopause Affects the Brain, Retrieved from: https://www.ted.com/talks/lisa_mosconi_how_menopause_affects_the_brain?language=en
Tocino-Smith, J. 2020, 10 Neurological Benefits of Exercise, PositivePsychology.com, last viewed 20/08/2020