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How estrogen levels in women protect brain function

How estrogen levels in women protect brain function

You’ve heard of the “change of life,” a common term for describing menopause. As estrogen levels in women dip at this stage of life, that change can impact nearly every part of the body, including the brain.

In the past, there was a lot of information out there about how the lower levels of estrogen associated with perimenopause and menopause are tied to heart health. That hormone change in postmenopausal women is also linked with unpleasant symptoms, such as hot flashes and vaginal dryness.

But it turns out that estrogen levels in women are also connected with brain health. Here’s how.

It’s a hormone thing

Let’s break down a few common terms you might have heard—menopause marks 12 months after a woman’s last menstrual cycle, perimenopause is the years leading up to that change, and the menopausal transition encompasses both of those things.

When a woman enters the menopausal transition, the amount of estrogen in the body starts to fluctuate, going from high levels to low levels and all points in between. Other hormone levels also fluctuate, causing a domino effect.

This chain of events is the culprit behind those sometimes-debilitating symptoms, such as the night sweats that leave your pajamas soaked. These lowered hormone levels are also why your period stops.

While the cessation of your menstrual cycle may leave you leaping for joy, the symptoms of low estrogen can be uncomfortable. Beyond those symptoms, an estrogen deficiency is also associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attack and diminished bone health since bone mineral density drops as estrogen levels fall.

What’s less well-known is that lower estrogen levels can also harm the brain. Research shows that a decrease in estrogen is associated with decreased gray matter in the brain. Gray matter changes are found in the regions of the brain tied to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

The connection between hormone levels and the brain may help explain why women are much more likely to be diagnosed with brain-related conditions, such as dementia, depression, certain autoimmune disorders, migraines and strokes. Estrogen receptors are found in cells throughout a woman’s brain, and as estrogen levels drop, the brain can suffer.

What you can do to protect your brain

While your estrogen levels will drop after menopause, you can take steps to keep your brain going strong.

If you’re experiencing any of the unpleasant side effects associated with menopause or at a high risk of developing osteoporosis, your OB/GYN may recommend hormone replacement therapy or HRT. Hormone replacement therapy is exactly as it sounds—it involves using medication to increase estrogen levels, minimizing symptoms.

Taking hormone replacement therapy, when needed, can benefit your body, helping to reduce the risk of unpleasant side effects while also protecting your brain, heart and bones.

There are two primary kinds of hormone replacement therapy—combined hormone therapy, which includes both estrogen and progestin, and estrogen-only therapy. Your provider can make a personalized recommendation about whether HRT is right for you.

You can also try natural ways to alleviate menopausal symptoms, including taking black cohosh and incorporating flax seeds into your diet, which may provide relief from symptoms like hot flashes.

Because lowered estrogen levels can expose a woman’s brain to damage, it’s important to take other steps to protect the brain and keep it strong. A healthy lifestyle is a good place to begin.

Move your body regularly, aiming for at least 30 minutes of exercise most days. Prioritize getting enough sleep because quality sleep is a necessary component of a healthy brain. Stay socially and cognitively active, engaging with others and learning new things.

Eat a variety of foods, including vegetables and fruit—a plant-based diet may be particularly beneficial. Love berries? Eat more of them. Berries and citrus fruits are filled with antioxidants that can give the brain a healthy boost.

Add in a regular serving of fish, too. Two four-ounce servings of fatty fish a week, such as tuna, salmon or oysters, can give you a potent dose of brain-protecting omega-3 fatty acids.

Looking for guidance about navigating a new age or stage of life? Connect with one of our women’s health specialists.