Did you know that your brain and your reproductive organs are intimately connected?
Your brain is in constant interaction with all of your body systems, especially the reproductive system. This is called the neuro endocrine system.
This means that, as a woman, the health of your ovaries is linked to the health of your brain! And vice- versa.
During peri-menopause estrogen, derived primarily from our ovaries, is in decline. We actually have estrogen receptors throughout the brain and body. So, when estrogen levels change, we experience the repercussions all over—especially when it comes to how we think and feel.
Other parts of our body still produce and store estrogen but if systemic estrogen levels are low this major decline from the ovaries impacts our brain and nervous system.
The symptoms that we are led to expect during menopause can be thought of as neurological symptoms. They are our bodies ways of letting us know that our nervous system, brain and all the functions that they manage, are struggling with this transition time.
Hot flushes, night sweats, insomnia, anxiety, memory lapses, depression…. All of these symptoms actually start in the brain as it is affected by our changing hormones.
If we think of these symptoms as Neurological then nourishing the nervous system makes sense. In Ayurvedic terms this means reducing elevated Vata (Air element), and adopting practices that are grounding and nourishing. I help women do this all the time!
One type of estrogen, called Estrodial, is key to energy production in the brain. Thus it is linked to brain function.
Science shows us how this natural decline in estrogen affects the brain.
The hypothalamus can’t regulate our temperature as effectively.
The amygdala, our emotional center, and our memory center the hippocampus are also affected by declining estrogen. This is why women during peri-menopause often have short term memory lapses, brain fog and can feel more emotional. This is not a bad thing! Menopause is the perfect time to address emotions that have lain dormant until this time!
Lastly, the brain stem which helps us to regulate our sleep and wake patterns also struggles. Less estrogen means the brain stem is not activated completely leading to difficulty getting to sleep or waking in the night.
Now, just to be clear, even if women are more tired or experience memory lapses during peri-menopause, cognitively they are no less sharp!
In peri-menopause our brains are going through a transition too. During all transitions in life we need more rest to support our whole system and allow time for the process to occur.
So, how can we protect our brains during peri-menopause?
A multi-pronged approach works best!
Diet, lifestyle and stress management are the three key pillars.
Certain foods, especially those that are rich in Omega 3’s support good brain function.
Ghee is an excellent source of omega 3’s and is also very high in butyric acid which is anti-inflammatory. Fish like salmon and mackerel are good. And a vegan choice is hemp seeds and oil.
Phytoestrogens found in many foods, (over 300!), help our body to regulate estrogen production. If we have too much estrogen these phytoestrogens will block estrogen receptors to tell the body that we have enough and not to make any more. If we have too much estrogen (this is often the case if progesterone is also low and can’t buffer estrogen growth), then these foods rich in phytoestrogens will help to build estrogen in the body.
Here are some of the many foods that are rich in phytoestrogens – Flax and sesame seeds, blue berries, fresh greens, nuts and seeds, dried apricots, and even dark chocolate! (Yay!)
But… no food, however wonderful, will helpful if our digestive system is not working well. Good digestion and liver function is essential for good hormone health.
Secondly, creating rhythm in our lifestyle helps our nervous system and our brain relax. When our body knows what is coming, especially around sleeping, waking and eating times then it can be ready to produce the right hormones and enzymes to support good health. Irregularity can throw the body into a spin, making it work so much harder than it needs to!
Regular exercise that suits your physical capacity has many health benefits and supports good brain health too. It is important during peri-menopause that we are not pushing too much. Only exercise to your capacity.
Lastly and very importantly, stress management is crucial for balancing our hormones and taking care of our brain.
When it comes to stress…
The body will always put survival first over reproduction. Sex hormones are nice but stress hormones are essential!
When stressed, our body produces cortisol, one of our major stress hormones, to help us to cope/survive. With high cortisol the body begins to live in a state of constant fight , flight, freeze or appease. Our energy is shunted out to our extremities in readiness to react to perceived danger and stress.
This makes our digestive organs become less effective; compromises our immune system; and puts our other endocrine glands under pressure as the body needs to produce more hormones, (ie thyroxine, cortisol, progesterone, dhea,) as our body gradually becomes less responsive to normal levels of these hormones.
The glands which produce these hormones are not bottomless reserves. They become worn out.
All endocrine glands secrete hormones, and when stress hormones are too high for too long all endocrine glands are at risk.
When the adrenals are under constant demand to produce cortisol to deal with stress levels, they eventually become tired. When this happens, the body will look elsewhere for help in making cortisol.
Progesterone is usually front of the line with her hand up! It happily becomes a precursor to cortisol to meet the ongoing demands of stress on the body.
Eventually this will create a drain on the levels of progesterone in our body too. Decreased progesterone with normal levels of estrogen can lead to estrogen dominance with its many complications of fibroids, endometriosis, weight gain, fluid retention, and higher risk of estrogen dominant cancers to name just a few.
Or low progesterone and low estrogen creates a scenario with anxiety, insomnia, dry skin, digestive bloating, and irregular or absent menstrual cycles… the bodies many cries for nourishment and grounding.
Reducing stress in our life and reducing our reaction to stress is key to balancing hormones.
My favourite practices for reducing stress are self-massage, meditation, walking in nature, and practicing gratitude. You may have discovered different favourite techniques… spending quality time with friends, singing, dancing, swimming…the list is endless. What makes vour your heart sing will increase your oxytocin, decrease your cortisol and stress levels, and nourish your body, brain and soul.
Our brains and reproductive organs may be intimately connected and affected by our midlife hormonal changes but this doesn’t mean our menopause time has to be a struggle.
Addressing your body’s cries for support and deep nourishment will lead to a more enriching Menopause experience.
If you would like my support in balancing your hormones you can make a time for a free discovery call chat, or consider purchasing my ebook – The Essential Guide to Balancing Your Hormones Naturally.