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 1

In fact, PMS and the escalation of symptoms that is so common during perimenopause are really our inner guidance system trying to get us to pay attention to the adjustments we need to make in our lives, adjustments that become particularly urgent during perimenopause.

If we don't pay attention to the issues that come up for us every month during the years when our periods are regular, our symptoms will escalate as we get older.

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.Everything from unbalanced nutrition to unresolved relationships can disrupt the normal hormonal milieu, wreaking physical and emotional havoc during the childbearing years. Ignoring these early, relatively gentle nudges month after month sets her up for sharper and more urgent messages. Inconvenient as they are, these pains are our allies, begging us to look up and see what's not working in our lives. Often we don't. Most of us are too busy, and the discomfort isn't all that bad. It's easier to ignore it. But the body is insistent!

A Poignant Wake-up Call:
Postpartum Depression

It is well documented that women who have significant PMS are also more apt to suffer from postpartum depression in the first days or weeks after giving birth. Or sometimes those who suffer from postpartum depression will go on to develop PMS when their menstrual cycles resume. Because new mothers often feel far too vulnerable to complain, postpartum depression is under-diagnosed and under-treated in our culture, even though between 10 and 15 percent of all women experience some form of mood disorder following childbirth, ranging from major depression to anxiety disorders such as panic attacks.

It may be no accident that the word "menopause" invites the association "pause from men."

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.
Did you like this? Share with your family and friends.
Christiane Northrup, M.D.
comments powered by Disqus

Advertisement

Advertisement

DiggDeliciousNewsvineRedditStumbleTechnoratiFacebook