The Brain Catches Fire at Menopause

An exploration of the physical and emotional changes that can spur growth and creativity for women at midlife.

BY: Christiane Northrup, M.D.


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Our Brains Catch Fire at Menopause

Our brains actually begin to change at perimenopause. Like the rising heat in our bodies, our brains also become fired up! Sparked by the hormonal changes that are typical during the menopausal transition, a switch goes on that signals changes in our temporal lobes, the brain region associated with enhanced intuition. How this ultimately affects us depends to a large degree on how willing we are to make the changes in our lives that our hormones are urging us to make over the ten years or so of perimenopause.

There is ample scientific evidence of the brain changes that begin to take place at perimenopause. Differences in relative levels of estrogen and progesterone affect the temporal lobe and limbic areas of our brains, and we may find ourselves becoming irritable, anxious, emotionally volatile.

Though our culture leads us to believe that our mood swings are simply the result of raging hormones and do not have anything to do with our lives, there is solid evidence that repeated episodes of stress (due to relationship, children, and job situations you feel angry about or powerless over, for example) are behind many of the hormonal changes in the brain and body.

This means that if your life situation--whether at work or with children, your husband, your parents, or whatever--doesn't change, then unresolved emotional stress can exacerbate a perimenopausal hormone imbalance. In a normal premenopausal hormonal state it's much easier to overlook those aspects of your life that don't really work, just as you can overlook them more easily in the first half of your menstrual cycle--the time when you're more apt to feel upbeat and happy and able to shove difficult material under the rug. But that doesn't mean the problems aren't there.

Heeding the Wake-up Call

Whether you are in early perimenopause at 35 or standing at the threshold of menopause, your body's inner wisdom will attempt to catch your attention through four kinds of escalating physical and emotional wake-up calls.

Our First Wake-up Call: PMS

What happens if, during our childbearing years, we ignore our cyclic nature, disconnect from the body's wisdom, and attempt to function as though we were linear beings with the same drives, the same focus, and the same aptitudes day after day? Very often PMS happens. With its physical and emotional discomfort, PMS is one way a woman's body reminds her every month of the growing backlog of unresolved issues accumulating within her.

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