Menopause makes women’s brains different from men’s brains. Notice that I did not say that a female brain is different from a male brain—there is no gender difference in the brain structure. The difference comes from the hormones, as they affect the brain.
Women have more estrogen than men, and men have more testosterone than women. During menopause (and even in perimenopause), women quickly begin to lose their estrogen. Men do begin to lose their testosterone, but at a much slower rate and at a lesser amount.
Welcome to Menopause
In her TED Talk and her book The XX Brain, Dr. Lisa Mosconi discusses the effect hormones have on our brains and, specifically, how that shift in hormones affects a woman’s brain. She notes that a woman’s brain and ovaries are part of the neuroendocrine system. The brain talks to the ovaries, and the ovaries talk to the brain, and the health of one affects the health of the other. So it’s important to keep in mind that estrogen is not only pertinent to reproduction, but also to brain function. When a woman’s estrogen level is high, her brain energy is high. When the estrogen levels drop, the brain energy drops as well.
The result: Hot flashes, mood swings, forgetfulness, inability to sleep, and weight gain. Welcome to menopause! In addition to these symptoms, as a woman transitions into menopause, there is often an increased accumulation of amyloid plaques, a major hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease. In studies, women have also shown a metabolic decline as well as shrinkage in the memory centers of the brain. Dr. Masconi notes that these symptoms of menopause correlate to early signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Thankfully, more research is being dedicated to this due to doctors like Dr. Masconi.
I’m writing about this topic not to be an alarmist but to empower women to do all they can to prevent this situation. Our system of Western medicine is often quick to offer medication or even dismiss a woman’s symptoms, perhaps only prescribing hormone replacement medication or sometimes an antidepressant once the symptoms have presented. Not much is being done to educate women about the many things they can do to prevent these symptoms from happening in the first place.
Don’t Take Menopause Lying Down
Thankfully, there are steps women can take to empower ourselves and hopefully prevent – or at least reduce – the effects of this shift in our hormones.
Some areas women need to pay attention to are food, environment, and lifestyle. A healthy diet and movement/exercise at all stages of life are essential – the key is finding what works best for you!
Reducing or eliminating alcohol, sugar, and processed food consumption is key. It’s also important to pay attention to our environment, which includes the household cleaners we use; products like candles, air fresheners, and perfumes, which carry toxins; our skin care products, such as soaps, lotions, and oral hygiene products; and our supplements. Some supplements are recommended for women during and approaching menopause, noting that we should first try to get as many nutrients and minerals as we can from our food, and second, we should speak with our healthcare provider to help us determine which supplements we need and the appropriate dosages for each.
Stop All That Stress
Another critical area – and this is where I help my female clients – is stress reduction. It’s common in our society for middle-aged women to be caretakers of their children, grandchildren, and aging parents. All these responsibilities, in addition to their careers, cause women to put themselves last and disregard how they are feeling as they focus on others. This has been called the “tend and befriend” response to stress rather than the “fight or flight” we may often see men resort to.
Therapy, breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, music, dancing, drumming, and simply gathering with friends or support groups can be life-changing for women facing the stress of life and the hormonal shifts in their bodies. Spending time in nature (see my article from last month about sun gazing and forest bathing) and unplugging from technology are other ways women can care for themselves during this stressful transition.
For me, sleep has been the biggest challenge during menopause. To help, I have started using blue-light-blocking glasses if I watch television or have screen time in the evening. I stop all caffeine by noon, supplement with magnesium, and often use a mushroom drink (certain mushrooms are shown to help with sleep) or chamomile tea, soft music, guided meditation, and certain breathing patterns to help me fall asleep.
Not surprisingly, studies have shown that women most often push themselves and rise to the expectations they or others have for them. We tend to do it all even if our tank is running low. That’s a badge we need to stop wearing. It’s hurting us, and, in many cases, it’s shortening our lives.
The healthier we are throughout our lives leading up to this transition, the easier this transition can be. Remember that even the airlines remind us that we have to put the oxygen mask on ourselves first – in other words, we need to help ourselves before we can be helpful to others – and I’m stressing that here because we matter. Put the mask on because you matter. Take care of your body now, so you can make this transition as smooth as possible. You matter enough to make that a priority.
Charleen K. Miele, LPC, is a Licensed Professional Counselor who started her journey as a teacher, church music director, and fitness instructor. Charleen works with clients both in person and via telehealth and has recently added Trauma Informed Breathwork to her work. She offers her clients the opportunity to experience IFS and/or breathwork through in-person and online sessions and is currently offering group breathwork sessions online and will be hosting workshops and group sessions in person in the new year. Life coaching and spiritual life coaching, including breathwork and IFS work, are also available both as individual sessions and as packages of two, four, or six sessions. Charleen will soon be offering self-paced online courses as well as interactive groups that will meet for a series of weeks and will include lectures, discussions, journaling, and experiential somatic work through breathing and movement.