The Curious case of how hormones impact the brain…


One of the symptoms that I often hear in menopausal and perimenopausal women in clinic is about mood changes, anxiety, memory changes, thought processing changes and sleep disturbances. In fact that is actually what brings most to seek treatment.

Similarly, I hear women who suffer PMS tell me about mood and emotional changes before their period and sometimes around ovulation. Some women experience menstrual migraines around this time too.



In many cases these symptoms can relate to oestrogen and progesterone levels in the brain.

It really can’t be understated just how strong the impact can be.


Oestrogen plays a significant role in higher order brain functions such as memory, learning, mood, psychiatric disorders and some social disorders in addition to a role it plays in protecting and repairing the brain. It also helps the synthesis of serotonin which is often called the happy hormone.


Progesterone calms the nervous system, promotes sleep and makes it easier to cope with stress through the conversion to a particular neurotransmitter. It also has an indirect role in the synthesis of dopamine which is the “everything is ok” hormone.

The fact is that there is a dense expression of oestrogen and progesterone receptors in the brain.


When you consider that over the average cycle women can experience an 8-fold increase in oestradiol and an 80-fold increase in progesterone you can see how this could actually impact our brain.


FUN FACT - progesterone has undergone human trials for improving function after traumatic brain injury.


There is a really cool study in 2020 that involved doing brain imaging daily and blood tests daily of a female participant across the course of her menstrual cycle. What was found was that there was a correlation between brain connectivity and what parts of the brain that were being used depending on the levels of hormones present. In short, it confirmed that as hormones fluctuate, so can brain function.


It’s also one of my favourite studies because it has the best line; “the study of brain-hormone interactions in human neuroscience has often been woefully myopic in scope”. Sing it loud sister.


In perimenopause oestrogen levels can fluctuate wildly and in menopause they decline. This decline is what is thought to bring about some of the mood and memory changes. At the same time, women are ovulating less and then at menopause, not at all. Ovulation is the ONLY way that we as women can naturally produce progesterone. It’s a double whammy.

In regularly menstruating women there is a decline in both oestrogen and progesterone before a period occurs and it is this decline in levels that can contribute to PMS and migraine symptoms in women that are sensitive to the decline.


I personally don’t think that it is pure chance that more women than men suffer from depression and anxiety in addition to dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers have acknowledged this now and there is a good deal of developing research in this space to understand the link.


NOT AS FUN FACT - the SECOND leading cause of death of Australian women in 2018 was Dementia which includes Alzheimer’s. That’s double the number of deaths attributed to this same reason than for men.


The big message here though is DON’T PANIC.


WHAT YOU CAN DO

In menopause and perimenopause its really important to remember that this changes of hormones is a natural progression and our brains will adjust – particularly if we can look after them with great lifestyle choices like stress management strategies, low processed food / high whole food diets and some movement.

In perimenopause and menopause it really is a time to take stock of your life and work out how you want to liver over the next phase of your life and what your priorities are.

Diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia start a long time before symptoms show and it really does appear that there is more to their development than just “unlucky genes”.

Of interest in regularly menstruating women, stress management strategies, low processed food / high whole food diets and some movement can assist where there are mood changes or fluctuations too.

Sometimes we do need to pull out the bigger guns of herbs and nutrients to help soothe brains and balance hormones but I always suggest that we address lifestyle factors as well.

If you are not sure where to start and you need a hand then reach out. I would be happy to help.


Written By Wendy Burke


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