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  • Writer's pictureOlivia K

How your ovaries affect your brain during the menopausal transition.

Updated: Jul 1

Credits: Park avenue (1)

The menopause transition can often make you feel like you’re not yourself. Sometimes women feel guilty for experiencing symptoms such as extreme mood swings, annoying brain fog, or crippling insomnia.

All these symptoms are temporary and suppressible with HRTs. And what’s important to understand is symptoms are directly linked to menopause, not your personality!

During menopause, your brain really needs a lot of time and support to adjust to the major hormonal changes happening in your body. (2) The beauty (and complexity) of biology is that everything is interconnected; the brain and ovaries are both major participants in hormone health and are always chatting with one another!

Let’s take a closer look at how menopause-induced hormone fluctuations can impact our brains and lead to these symptoms.

Hormones: how do they work?

Your body has two complementary systems:

  • The endocrine system: responsible for secreting hormones that travel through the blood. Composed of glands, that produce and release hormones, and cell receptors that behave as a checkpoint.

  • The nervous system: behaves as the body’s command center, headquartered in the brain.

Example process of hormone distribution (3)

The combination of both these systems is referred to as the neuroendocrine system. The brain, specifically an important gland within the brain called the hypothalamus, dictates the endocrine system. It manages other glands and their hormone production (4)

How do reduced levels of estrogen affect the brain?

Menopause is already directly linked to several neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia. After menopause, women's brains display significant differences. This is primarily due to the critical role of estrogen in brain health.

Estrogen is used for energy production in the brain (5). It pushes neurons to make energy. When estrogen is high, brain energy is high. When estrogen is low, neurons start to slow down and age faster. During menopause, the levels of estrogen in women decrease, and this has a profound impact on the way the brain works. (6)

Here are some examples of how decreased levels of estrogen in the brain result in menopausal symptoms:

  1. The hypothalamus regulates body temperature. When estrogen doesn’t activate the hypothalamus correctly, the brain cannot regulate body temperature correctly. As a result, women experience hot flashes.

  2. The brain stem is in charge of sleep. When this part does not receive enough estrogen, it can result in trouble sleeping.

  3. The hippocampus stores short-term memory. When this part has decreased levels of estrogen it can result in loss of memory and failure to remember things.

  4. The amygdala is the emotional center of the brain and estrogen fluctuations also influence other hormones such as serotonin, a brain chemical that promotes feelings of well-being and happiness. When hormone levels drop, serotonin levels also fall. The amygdala also receives decreased levels of estrogen. This can contribute to mood swings. (7)

  5. The fluctuation of estrogen and another key hormone, progesterone, in your body can cause feelings of anxiety. (8)

  6. For some women, these hormonal dips can be more than what they can usually cope with. The constant mood changes, stress, and anxiety can lead to the onset of depression.

Impact of menopause shown on brain scans.

The impact of reduced levels of estrogen can be shown through brain scans before and after menopause. This is a positron emission tomography (PET) which looks at brain energy levels.

This is the brain of a 43 old woman before menopause and 8 years later after menopause. The first brain has very bright and vibrant colors. In the second brain, after menopause, the bright yellow has turned into more purple and orange. This shows there is a 30% drop in brain energy levels after menopause.

The importance of being informed about menopause.

Thousands of women suffer without proper education about menopause. Here are some statistics from The State of Menopause Study conducted with 1,039 women ages 40 to 65 across the United States. (9)

One-third of women never sought information about menopause until they experienced it.

Nearly half the women didn’t know the difference between perimenopause and menopause. One-fifth of women surveyed weren't assessed menopausal until one year or more after symptoms. 34% had never been formally assessed or diagnosed as menopausal.

73% of women reported that they were not currently treating their menopause.

A study was conducted to see the effect of menopause education on the quality of life of women. Findings showed quality-of-life improved significantly in the group of women informed about menopause while the women with no education significantly regressed. (10)

Clearly, women need to be educated about menopause!

Key takeaways:

  • The loss of estrogen after menopause has been shown in studies to increase the risk of neurodegenerative diseases.

  • The endocrine system is what works constantly to keep our body in a state of balance and works together with the brain.

  • There is a higher risk of neurodegenerative diseases, associated with a shorter lifetime of endogenous estrogen exposure.

  • Women have had significant differences in their brains after menopause compared to men.

  • Estrogen levels in women start decreasing during midlife with menopause.

  • Estrogen is used for energy production in the brain, when estrogen is high, brain energy is high.

  • When estrogen doesn’t activate certain parts of the brain properly, it results in changes throughout the body known as “menopause symptoms.”

  • Menopause education can increase the quality of life in women.

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