What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘hormones?’ The mysterious monthly epiphany that everyone and everything in your life must exist solely to irritate you? The intense food cravings, aversions and mood swings often associated with pregnancy and the early days of parenthood? More often than not, when the word “hormones” is tossed around, there is usually some negative association (Moody! Irrational! Hysterical!) In this article, we hope to shift the conversation away from some of the tired, sexist tropes around female hormones, and focus in on a connection that, until recently, was not well researched or understood: the connection between our hormones and brain health.
Hormones and the Endocrine System:
Before we delve into the research, let’s first talk about the endocrine system. The endocrine system is a very complex network of glands and organs. It is comprised of hormones that work to control and coordinate our body’s metabolism, energy levels, growth and development, reproduction, and regulate our response to injury, stress, and changes in mood. In other words, it is the system hard-at-work behind the scenes to ensure that our moods, stress, energy levels and appetite stay in check. One way of looking at this system is as a collection of hormones that are waiting for their “signal” to be put to work in our bodies. The endocrine system includes our hypothalamus, pituitary, thyroid, parathyroids, adrenal and pineal glands, and ovaries or testes.
What is the connection between the reproductive system and the brain?
The brain is connected to the reproductive systems via a network that is called the HPG axis, which includes the hypothalamus and pituitary-gonadal axis. This important system connects specific parts of the brain like the hypothalamus, an organ responsible for regulating body temperature and producing estrogen and progesterone. The pituitary gland is in charge of making a variety of hormones including human growth hormone, thyroid-stimulating hormone, adrenocorticotrophin hormone, follicle-stimulating hormone, luteinizing hormone and prolactin. All these hormones together are responsible for the menstrual cycle in women, and they’re connected to the ovaries, and the gonadal system.
Estrogen’s Effects on the Brain:
Estrogen, one of the hormones produced by our ovaries, affects our reproductive tract, urinary tract, bone development, hair, skin, nails, muscles and brain. That’s right, one single hormone has the ability to affect musculoskeletal, cardiovascular and neurological systems in our body. Believe it or not, estrogen plays an important role in brain function. Estrogen helps with the production of serotonin – a lack of serotonin can contribute to mood swings and/or depression. “In postmenopausal women, the earliest change in the brain appears to be a fall in the amount of glucose used by the brain, indicating reduced brain activity. This is due to falling estrogen levels as this hormone being vital for brain glucose metabolism.” Recent studies have also shown that, “as estrogen levels fall, changes occur in the morphology, number, and interactions between nerve cells, their glucose metabolism, and gene expression. In female animal models, low estrogen has been linked to the accumulation of the abnormal protein amyloid-beta (Aβ), which is notorious for forming plaques within brain tissue, in people with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), though also sometimes in normal people.”
Hormonal Changes During Menopause & The Effects:
Research has now demonstrated a link between the forgetfulness, delayed verbal memory, reduced verbal processing speed and impaired verbal learning many women experience during the menopause transition and a decline in estrogen.
Estrogen, or estradiol, is the key for energy production in the brain. On the cellular level, estrogen is responsible for encouraging neurons to burn glucose to produce new energy. As less and less estrogen is produced, the hypothalamus is no longer activated as effectively, and the brain struggles to regulate body temperature appropriately. This causes hot flashes and night sweats. Due to the lack of estrogen and corresponding decrease in signaling, women can also struggle to get a good night’s sleep through the menopause transition. Another estrogen-related area of the brain is the amygdala. The amygdala is the emotional centre of the brain, beside the hippocampus. The fluctuating, then declining levels of estrogen associated with the menopause transition can manifest in the amygdala through mood swings and forgetfulness.1
How To Protect Your Brain During Menopause:
Like most other aspects of our health, we want to be preventative, not reactive. The same applies for one’s brain health – especially during menopause! According to Harvard researchers, there are three major pillars that can have an impact on brain health: effortful physical activity, cognitive activity and social contact. “Research shows that the first two of these have direct beneficial effects on the brain, even at the level of cellular function. Social contact is another form of keeping our brains active by external stimuli, novel experiences, and perspectives outside of ourselves.”2
Dietary habits (such as the vegetable, whole grain, fish and healthy-fat focused Mediterranean diet) have been shown not only to lower the risk of high blood pressure, cancer and heart disease but also to benefit memory and cognitive function. The good news is that these are modifiable lifestyle habits, which may be particularly important for women with hypertension or diabetes who are at higher risk for cognitive decline.
Lastly, adequate sleep is also important for healthy brain function. Sleep is critical for brain health and plays a major role in information retention, learning consolidation and clearing the brain of amyloid (an abnormal protein that can build up and interfere with brain function). While all this may sound like we are suggesting a bleak outlook for your brain health after menopause (declining estrogen = poorer sleep = declining cognitive function = total buzz kill!) there are many things we can do to help improve sleep through the menopause transition, and many people enjoy better sleep once their menopause symptoms have subsided.
Lifestyle habits such as regular exercise, limiting caffeine and food intake before bed, practicing good sleep hygiene, and introducing a calming, soothing and consistent bedtime routine can all help, regardless of what phase of life we are in. For those who begin to have more difficulty falling and staying asleep through the menopause transition, Harmony’s MySleep – a multi-herbal and natural sleep supplement containing zizyphus, hops, magnesium and the naturally-occurring melatonin from sour cherry– may provide relief. For those who suffer from night sweats and restlessness as well as other symptoms of the menopause transition, Harmony’s unique and multi-herbal Menopause Day & Night formula can help provide relief from symptoms AND better rest after 3 – 4 weeks of consistent use.
Just as genetics play a role in how we experience menopause, they also play a role in our risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. However, as this article has discussed, there are many lifestyle choices and options within our control that can directly and indirectly have a positive impact on our experience of the menopause transition, and our brain health as we age.
By Lindsay Mustard. Lindsay is a Holistic Nutritionist, Osteopathic Natural Practitioner and firefighter-in-training with a burning passion for health and fitness. In her osteopathic practice, Lindsay works with clients to craft a unique plan that is tailored to their specific health goals. Her nutritional practice was built around a whole food and supplement approach.
1 ZOMORODI, MANOUSH, and Lisa Mosconi. “Lisa Mosconi: How Does Menopause Affect the Brain?” Ted Talks Radio, NPR, 5 Mar. 2021.
2 Thomas, Dr. Liji. “How Does Menopause Affect the Brain?” News, 27 Sept. 2021
3 Jill M. Goldstein, PhD. “Menopause and Memory: Know the Facts.” Harvard Health, 3 Nov. 2021