Hormones are critical for the brain health of men and women, at all ages. But, unlike men, women experience three reproductive stages in their lives that change their brain in unique ways. We call these the three P's: puberty, pregnancy, and peri-menopause.
These three stages in a women’s reproductive life are accompanied by huge hormonal changes that have huge effects on her brain. I want to share with you how a women’s brain change during each of these stages and what she can do to protect her brain health now and for her entire life.
Let’s start with what happens to a women’s brain during puberty.
During puberty, hormones control certain functions in your body and brain. These hormones play a key role in making an adolescent girl’s brain receptive to learning and new experiences. The hormonal changes that occur during puberty can also increase the risk for mental health challenges like depression and persistent depressive symptoms in females. Both depression and anxiety have been be linked to an increased risk for Alzheimer’s. So trying to reduce the number of young women living with depression through early diagnosis and talking therapy and drug treatment is valuable for a woman's life on every level.
So what can you do to protect the brain during puberty? More than anything, it's critical for a girl going through puberty to be given the physical and social conditions she needs to have good brain health. That includes things like having access to brain healthy foods, doing regular aerobic exercise getting a full complement of 8-9 hours sleep every night, and living in a caring, safe and stable home environment.
Reducing a young women’s exposure to environmental toxins is also critical Environmental toxins are bad for the brain at any time in life, so reducing exposure to them is critical—whether its air pollution, ingested toxins, and products that may interfere with oestrogen production, like certain makeups and plastics. Choosing stainless steel or glass products over plastics can help, drinking filtered water, and avoiding foods that have pesticide residue or a lot of artificial ingredients.
Aerobic exercise fuels the brain with oxygen and encourages the growth of new brain cells which are critical for learning and memory consolidation. Getting enough sleep during puberty is also crucial for memory consolidation, learning, stress reduction, and supports their immune system. It is essential for adolescent girls to stay away from drugs and alcohol because these are particularly toxic for their developing brain, and can actually shrink parts of their brain before they’re fully developed. The brain is drastically changing during puberty, and it's important not to compromise it through exposure to unhealthy elements and to nurture it through a healthy lifestyle.
So what happens to the brain during pregnancy?
When women become pregnant, their body and brain experience a massive surge in hormones, followed by a big drop after the baby is born. Many women report that they experience “baby brain” or “pregnant brain” which neuroscience research has shown can include symptoms like a mild decline in mental ability, memory problems, and in the executive mental skills used every day to learn, work, and manage daily life.
In lots of ways, pregnancy resembles puberty as the brain is exposed to a large influx of hormones that, in this case, prepare you for giving birth, while at the same time affecting brain function, too. For some women, the waves of estrogen that their brain experiences during pregnancy may actually protect them from developing Alzheimer's disease later in life. The high blood sugar that develops during pregnancy - Gestational Diabetes - might also be a risk for developing type 2 diabetes in midlife, which is a big risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.
So how can you look after your brain during pregnancy?
Well - during pregnancy, as much as they possibly can women should try to get enough sleep, exercise, and eat brain-healthy food. The Mediterranean diet, which is packed with vitamins and minerals, healthy fats like olive oil and fish, lean protein, and green leafy vegetables - is the perfect brain-healthy diet to follow. Where possible, it also advisable to avoid processed foods, refined sugar, and too much salt. These foods can lead to unhealthy weight gain, fatigue, and even a higher chance of developing high blood pressure or gestational diabetes.
It's also really important for women to take time to look after themselves during this tumultuous time. There are so many overwhelming changes that happen inside their brain and body. And life is going to change dramatically with the joy and hard work that comes with a new arrival.
So what about the peri-menopause - the time during which a woman’s body makes the natural transition to menopause, marking the end of her reproductive years?
In midlife, a women’s body and brain experience a change in oestrogen production, which in turn triggers a cascade of brain changes including, changes to brain structure, connectivity between different brain regions, and brain energy consumption. Perhaps most noticeable is that many women going through peri-menopause experience a drop in brain energy levels, which shows up as hot flushes, extreme fatigue and tiredness. Later in life, these changes to brain energy might also make a woman's brain more susceptible to developing Alzheimer's.
So how can a woman look after her brain during peri-menopause?
Like during pregnancy, the Mediterranean diet has been proven to provide the best nutrition for brain health during the peri-menopause. Women should also keep alcohol to a minimum, avoid smoking, get as much sleep as they can, and reduce stress. All of these lifestyle factors have a big influence over a women’s oestrogen levels. And finally aerobic exercise has been found to be really helpful to to improve mental function and reduce brain fog.
We now know that men and women appear to develop Alzheimer's for different reasons: a man's brain health appears to be at more risk from cardiovascular factors, like stroke, whereas a woman's brain health is at higher risk from hormonal and metabolic factors.
So it’s critical that women receive the right health, neurological and psychological guidance to get the best and most appropriate preventive care for their brain health during every phase of their life.
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