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 4

Thus the average woman, blessed with approximately 480 menstrual periods and 40 seasonal cycles to bring her to the threshold of menopause, gets about 500 progress reports. How is her physical health and nutrition? How are her emotions? What's happening in her relationships and her career? There have been approximately 500 opportunities to resolve those issues or sweep them under the rug.

At perimenopause the process escalates. The earnest, straightforward inner self, which has tried for years to get our attention, makes one final hormonally mediated attempt to get us to deal with our accumulated needs, wants, and desires. This is likely to turn into a period of great emotional turmoil, as each woman struggles to make a new life, one that can accommodate her emerging self.

Externally and internally, this period is a mirror image of adolescence, a time when our bodies and brains were also going through major hormonal shifts that gave us the energy to attempt to individuate and become the person we were meant to be. At menopause we pick up where we left off in adolescence. It is now time to finish the job.

It should be no surprise, then, that research has documented that those women who experience uncomfortable--even severe--symptoms of PMS are often the same women who have a tumultuous perimenopause, with physical and emotional symptoms that become increasingly impossible to ignore.


As a woman makes the transition to the second half of her life, she finds herself in a struggle not only with her own aversion to conflict and confrontation, but also with the culture's view of how women "should" be. The body's inner wisdom gets its last, best chance of breaking through culturally erected barriers, while shining a light on aspects of a woman's life that need work. To resolve the situation, it is up to the individual woman to meet her body's wisdom halfway.

Debunking the Myth of Raging Hormones

Though hormone levels and mood do tend to fluctuate widely during our reproductive years, and even more widely during our perimenopausal years, research has failed to show any appreciable differences between the hormone levels of those women who suffer from PMS-like symptoms and those who don't.

What has been well documented, however, is that the brains of women who suffer the most from PMS-like symptoms are more susceptible to the effects of fluctuating hormone levels. In other words, it is not the hormone levels per se that are the problem; it is the particular combination of a woman's hormone levels and her pre-existing brain chemistry, along with her life situation, that results in her symptoms. It is estimated that 27 percent of all women who become depressed premenstrually will be very sensitive to the hormonal changes that occur at menopause.

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Christiane Northrup, M.D.
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