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Published on: December 8, 2018
by Women’s Brain Health Initiative:
Hormones are regulatory substances produced by various glands (such as the thyroid, pituitary, ovaries, and adrenal) that stimulate specific cells in the body. They are carried by the blood to different parts of the body and are responsible for regulating an extensive variety of psychological and behavioural processes.
THE BRAIN RELIES SIGNIFICANTLY ON PROPER HORMONE BALANCE IN ORDER TO FUNCTION APPROPRIATELY.
In fact, concentrations of estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, DHEA, and other hormones can be higher in the brain than in the bloodstream. Not surprisingly, then, an imbalance of hormones drastically affects the brain’s chemistry and communication between brain cells (i.e. neurotransmission). The detrimental impact to one’s health can be physical, mental, and emotional, including issues with growth development, metabolism, sleep, sexual development, diabetes, thyroid, and brain health deterioration.
SPECIFIC HORMONES AND THEIR EFFECTS ON THE BRAIN, COGNITION, AND MEMORY
The following is a brief description of specific hormones that have a substantial effect on brain health, and the common symptoms that an individual may experience if a particular hormone level is too low or too high.
Estrogen // Responsible for the sexual and reproductive development in women, estrogen has a profound impact on brain health. A growing body of evidence has documented estrogen’s positive effect on learning, memory, and mood, as well as neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative processes. Among its many benefits in the brain, estrogen also seems to prevent or delay memory and cognitive decline, including diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Testosterone // Produced by the ovaries, testosterone strengthens muscles, arteries, and nerves, including those in the brain, and therefore contributes to mental sharpness and clarity, as well as overall energy levels. Studies from the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging found that low levels of testosterone increased the risk of Alzheimer’s disease in men, even when other risk factors for dementia were considered. Along with Alzheimer’s, low testosterone has also been associated with other neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease.
Progesterone // Emerging research indicates that progesterone has multiple non-reproductive functions in the central nervous system to regulate cognition, mood, inflammation, neurogenesis, and regeneration. Progesterone has a calming effect on the brain, as well as a protective effect by reducing swelling and improving mental clarity after a traumatic brain injury.
Estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone work directly with the nerve cells in the brain and contribute to blood flow of the brain, protecting against loss of memory and the progression of dementia.
Thyroid // The thyroid gland produces hormones that help regulate the body’s metabolic rate (energy use), muscle control, brain development, mood, heart and digestive function, and bone maintenance. It can therefore have an impact on thought processes and memory. Thyroid hormone deficiency, even of short duration, may lead to irreversible brain damage, the consequences of which depend on the specific timing of onset and duration of the deficiency.
Cortisol // The primary “stress hormone,” cortisol can help reduce inflammation, control blood sugar levels and blood pressure, as well as regulate metabolism. In healthy individuals, cortisol levels naturally increase in response to stressful situations. However, in circumstances in which the body perceives the stress as a severe threat or the stress is prolonged, an excess level of cortisol becomes active in the brain, which can result in adverse effects, such as damage to the hippocampus – an essential part of memory creation.
Vasopressin // Also referred to as antidiuretic hormone (ADH), vasopressin is a hormone produced by the hypothalamus in the brain and stored in the pituitary gland. Vasopressin regulates the volume of water in the body and also affects blood pressure.
Melatonin // While previously thought of as a mere sleep aid, recent studies have revealed that melatonin has the ability to reduce brain injury-induced trauma, provide protection against neurogenerative diseases, and boost cognitive functioning, amongst other benefits.
Because of the interconnectivity of these hormones, deficiencies and imbalances can result in brain-related symptoms such as poor concentration, forgetfulness, confusion, lack of clarity, and even memory loss. If not properly addressed, these symptoms can have both short-term and long-term effects.
SIMPLE WAYS TO TRY TO IMPROVE HORMONAL IMBALANCE
Diet // Increase your vitamin intake and be smart about how you eat by opting for a more anti-inflammatory diet. For example, healthy fats that are anti-inflammatory include coconut oil, avocados, and salmon. Fish oil and additional Vitamin D and Vitamin B also help balance estrogen. Foods that may increase estrogen include barley, beets, cherries, chickpeas, carrots, cucumbers, dates, fennel, olives and olive oil, papaya, peas, pomegranates, beans, rhubarb, tomatoes, wheat, and yams. For brain-healthy (and great-tasting) recipes, visit www.memorymorsels.org.
Allergies // Keeping your immune system in peak form will ensure that your body is in a better position to avoid any inflammation that can result when your system is fighting itself, and increase your body’s natural defenses and better regulate hormones.
Physical and Mental Activity // Be active. A lack of physical exercise also contributes to high levels of inflammation. Keeping active also includes exercising your mind, such as learning a new language, taking a cooking class, or playing a musical instrument.
Toxins // Toxins can play a significant role in hormonal imbalance. Limit your exposure to environmental toxins such as pesticides and harmful chemicals as much as possible. This includes being aware of the food that you are consuming in your regular diet that may be injected with growth hormones, as well as your exposure to the chemicals found in plastics. Instead, try to consume high-quality organic meat and dairy products that are hormone-free and drink and eat from glass containers.
Water // Stay hydrated and drink plenty of water. Water helps with digestion, absorption, and circulation, and it moves waste products and toxins out of the body. It also increases blood flow and oxygen to the brain, which is why dehydration can also impair cognitive function. To learn more about the cognitive benefits of drinking water, see page 38 of this issue of Mind Over Matter®.
Stress // Learn to manage your stress. Regardless of the cause, addressing all emotional imbalances you are dealing with will naturally help balance your hormones. Stress management strategies include getting regular exercise and plenty of sleep, as well as practicing relaxation techniques such as trying yoga, practicing deep breathing, getting a massage or learning to meditate.
Sleep // The negative impact of limited sleep and rest cannot be underestimated. Fluctuating hormones contribute to insomnia, which not only impairs memory but also causes additional stress and inflammation in the body because it is not able to fully restore and repair itself at night. Deep sleep is when the brain moves short-term memories into long-term storage. Frequent interruptions in sleep are deadly to memory.
To help support your brain health, enjoy the lifestyle reminders posted on Women’s Brain Health Initiative’s Instagram account (@womensbrains).
WHAT ABOUT HORMONE REPLACEMENT THERAPY?
Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is any form of hormone therapy where a patient receives hormones medically to supplement or substitute natural hormone production.
In an interview with Women’s Brain Health Initiative, neuroscientist Dr. Gillian Einstein, who holds the Wilfred and Joyce Posluns Chair in Women’s Brain Health and Aging, noted that despite all of the research to date, the consensus is still unclear as to whether hormones need to be replaced in menopausal women and whether this would be protective against dementia in an older population.
“Hormone therapy was started to restore what the medical community felt needed to be replaced. It is still a very active area of research,” explains Dr. Einstein. “Part of the confusion is the uncertain questions such as, what kinds of hormones need to be replaced, and at what age, what are the critical windows for the most impact, and what dosing schedule should be followed, whether it should be a patch or a pill […] or if they should be given at all. What other body systems might they affect besides the brain (e.g. good and bad effects on the heart and breast).”
“It is not a straight forward answer and the reality is that everyone is different,” she added. “The role that your hormones are going to play is completely dependent on a number of variables that are very different for each person, including family history, other diseases in their backgrounds, the lifestyle they practice, and how they feel.”
Dr. Einstein cautions that in addition to all the variables that affect each individual woman, it is also important to understand the impact of hormone loss with younger women, particularly since this subject matter has often been studied in the context of menopausal women.
THE WORK THAT WE ARE DOING, SUPPORTED BY THE POSLUNS CHAIR, IS BEGINNING TO REVEAL THAT HORMONES WHEN YOU’RE YOUNG ARE IMPORTANT TO COGNITION, TO MEMORY, AND THE HEALTH OF DIFFERENT BRAIN REGIONS.
“The kind of hormone deprivation of younger women is different than that which is experienced by older women, whatever the reason (e.g. having ovaries surgically removed vs. natural menopause),” Dr. Einstein observes.
“People with a history of Alzheimer’s disease, or who have had their ovaries removed before they would naturally go into menopause, may want to consider hormone replacement, but it is different for everyone. There are many older women who live long and cognitively healthy lives without hormone replacement. The most important question that requires real attention is what is the history of women who have dementia.”
Dr. Einstein was recently involved in a research paper entitled The Many Menopauses, which identified that there are multiple ways that women can enter menopause that have repercussions on cognitive performance. One of the outcomes is the continuing pressure for research scientists to study distinct populations, since every group is different when it comes to the relationship between hormones and brain health.
The Evolution of Hormones Throughout a Woman’s Life
PUBERTY // The luteinizing hormone (LH) stimulates puberty when the hormone is released from the pituitary gland. Once a woman’s monthly menstruation cycle begins, the pituitary gland slightly increases production of follicle-stimulating hormones (FSH). Estrogen production increases, causing the lining of the uterus to thicken and progesterone production increases to prepare the lining to receive an egg. The imbalance of these two hormones significantly contributes to premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms.
PREGNANCY // Pregnant women experience immediate and, in some cases, intense increases in estrogen and progesterone as their bodies prepare to support and develop the baby. In fact, a pregnant woman produces more estrogen in one day than a non-pregnant woman generates in three years. This massive fluctuation can also impact several other hormones, resulting in a variety of implications.
Several studies have suggested that pregnancy has a long-lasting effect on a woman’s brain. Pregnancy reduces grey matter in specific parts of a woman’s brain, to help her bond with her baby and prepare for the demands of motherhood. This change endures for at least two years after pregnancy. The areas of the so-called “mommy brain” that are responsible for focus and concentration are preoccupied with protecting and tracking the newborn child. This can result in what feels like decreased brain power, and increased stress and anxiety when separated from the child, particularly if nursing. The ongoing fluctuation of these predominant hormones, with the simultaneous drop in progesterone, can also cause low moods, leading some women to experience post-partum depression.
PERI-MENOPAUSAL // As women get older, the body’s ovaries age and release fewer hormones. The endocrine system tells the body to produce less FSH hormone and there is a decrease in the stimulation of the ovaries resulting in the reduction of estrogen and progesterone levels. Women tend to still experience sporadic menstrual cycles during this time. The fluctuation contributes to hot flashes, fatigue, low libido, and sometimes anxiety.
MENOPAUSE // As the ovaries continue to age, they can no longer properly perform their function to regulate the body’s estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone levels. This is the stage when women stop having their periods. At this point, women experience the most significant changes in hormone levels.
POST MENOPAUSE // The female brain becomes more stable after menopause with lower, steadier hormones that translate into a calmer, less emotional brain – one that is not as reactive to stress. However, because of a lower level of estrogen, women at this stage can be at an increased risk for other health conditions such as osteoporosis and heart disease.
On the positive side, though, as the “mommy brain” slows down through this evolution of hormones and the cycle of fluctuations, the individual focus is believed to begin to shift inwards, more often with a greater focus on health and diet, as well as overall well-being.
Source: MIND OVER MATTER V7
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