The Brain Catches Fire at Menopause

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

Continued from page 3

As with all illness, there are genetic, environmental, and nutritional factors that are associated with postpartum depression. But it is also true that postpartum depression is often a sign from a mother's inner wisdom that she isn't getting the support and help she needs at this time, and that certain areas of her life, especially her relationships with one or both parents or with her partner, require some attention.



An Annual Wake-up Call: SAD

If the monthly messages go unheeded, a woman's body may send a louder wake-up call on a yearly basis, in the form of seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. It begins with an intensification of the symptoms of PMS during the autumn and winter of the year, when the days are shortest and darkness dominates. Eventually it can evolve into full-blown depression during the time of year when daylight is abbreviated.

It is well known that providing two hours of full-spectrum artificial light in the evening, to trick the body into thinking the days are longer, can reverse the weight gain, depression, carbohydrate craving, social withdrawal, fatigue, and irritability of SAD. But studies have shown that without continued use of the artificial lights, the symptoms return the following autumn unless the wake-up call is heeded. The link between PMS and SAD is a profound example of how women's wisdom is simultaneously encoded into both our monthly cycles and the annual cycle of the seasons.

Perimenopause: The Mother of
All Wake-up Calls

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For many women perimenopause can be, as one of my patients described it, "PMS times ten"--and this is particularly the case for those who, for one reason or another, hit the snooze button instead of heeding their monthly and seasonal wake-up calls.



This is not to discount the direct physical effects of changing hormone levels. However, it is a safe bet that any uncomfortable symptoms that reveal themselves during times of hormonal shift will be magnified and prolonged if a woman is carrying a heavy load of emotional baggage. Throughout a woman's childbearing years, a kind of "debt account" is established where existing and future issues accumulate, compounding interest with each passing month that the debt goes unpaid.



For many women perimenopause can be, as one of my patients described it, "PMS times ten."

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Christiane Northrup, M.D.
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