Women and their brains- How to care for the female brain?
Updated: Mar 30, 2021
Dr. Porrselvi A.P., Founder and Cognitive Neuropsychologist, Unified Brain Health Care
Disclaimer: Scientific Research has time and again proven that there is no difference in the cognitive ability of the female brain when compared to the male brain, at any age. This was proved by my research on cognition among Tamil speaking people as well.
This article only intends to help women take care of their brain health and emotional well-being and help men advocate brain health for the women in their lives. This article does not intend to scare you, but only intends to make you more protective of your well-being.
What makes a woman, a woman is not just the reproductive organs. There are many essential differences in their genetic, hormonal, and physiological making that contribute to different patterns of functioning and aging in the women’s brain.
Just having the XX chromosomes in their cells (it does not matter what your gender identity is) increases their risk for many diseases. Women are 2 times more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression, 3 times more likely to be diagnosed with autoimmune disorders, 4 times more likely to get migraines and headaches. They have an increased risk of meningiomas, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease. Almost 2/3rd of all people diagnosed with Alzheimer's and related diseases are women.
In recent studies, it has been shown that women’s brains lose volume and shrink during pregnancy and especially in the period immediately after the baby is born. This is evolution's way of making sure the woman's brain is energy efficient and focused on the newborn baby. Mind you, this does not mean that they function any lesser- if anything, they are more alert to the baby's and new family's needs. The brain then starts growing again and by 2 years post-partum it gets back to normal volume. During this whole process, unnecessary neural connections are lost while Prefrontal and Medial temporal lobe connections get stronger.
So I hope by now, I have you convinced that women's brains are unique and it requires specialized care.
When it comes to aging and the female brain, Menopause plays the key role. Our brains and the ovaries are part of the neuroendocrine systems and network. So it is not far fetched to say that the health of the ovaries can mean the health of the brain. During the pre-menopausal and menopause stages of life, many women experience neurological and psychological symptoms like hot flashes, brain fog, memory lapses, mood swings, insomnia, night sweats and generalized anxiety.
Just before menopause the level of the female hormone Estrogen decreases rapidly in the women's system. This hormone is a very important regulator of the female brain. It regulates immunity. It influences neuroplasticity, the growth of neurons and new synapses in the brain. It plays a key role in energy production in the brain. So menopause symptoms can be explained as follows:
Hot flashes maybe due to the hypothalamus protesting the decrease in estrogen. Insomnia and Night sweats can be due to the Brain stem not performing its function of sleep regulation well. Maybe the Hippocampus and Amygdala are responsible for the mood swings and memory lapses.
After menopause, due to the estrogen drop, the neurons slow down. Studies have shown that there is almost a 30% drop in the energy pattern in the brains within 8 years post-menopause. Lesser the energy, the faster the neurons age. This can lead to the accumulation of amyloid plaques which can be a cause of the increased risk of Alzheimer's Disease in women. In a study, there was a 20% increase in plaques in a female brain on an average. Again, you must remember that not all women have the plaques and not all people with plaques in the brain develop Alzheimer's Disease. But we cannot deny the fact that being a woman, increases the risk for diseases of the brain.
Women who have undergone Hysterectomy and/or Oophorectomy tend to be more at risk for Alzheimer's Disease. This is especially true if the surgeries were done before the natural menopause. After menopause, the surgeries do not seem to correlate with an increased risk.
Please note that there is no difference in cognitive performance before or after menopause in women. At any age women perform well on cognitive tests. So don't use this to discriminate against the women in your life.
Alzheimer's disease and many other neurodegenerative disease processes start taking root in our brains in midlife, just like menopause. So we need to start preventing the deterioration of her brain health beginning even in the late 30's, 40's and early 50's age group.
So, How to protect Her Brain?
The first question that is asked is- so the problem is the estrogen drop, why not just supplement the estrogen? Hormonal replacement therapy is not a recommended medical therapy for brain or emotional health concerns due to menopause right now. Also it has shown to increase the risk of breast cancer.
So what do we do?
Build a Healthy Lifestyle. Start young. Build reserve. Teach little girls to adopt healthy behaviours in their everyday life. The food she eats, regular physical exercise throughout her lifespan, emotional hygiene and knowing how to manage her stress and sleeping well matters.
The Mediterranean diet (and other traditional diets) are supportive of women’s health. These diets are typically high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nut and seeds, and olive oil. They include a moderate intake of fish and poultry; a low intake of dairy products, red meat, processed foods, and sweets. Such diets have shown to lower risk of cognitive decline, depression, cancer, heart disease, stroke. Since these diets have more plant based foods, they have a high content of phyto-oestrogens (plant-derived estrogen). Flax seeds, sesame seeds, apricots, melons, chickpeas, whole grains, legumes, berries are good for women.
Women who are exercising and are physically active in midlife have a 30% lesser risk of Alzheimer's Disease. These women are fitter emotionally and physically. They tolerate menopause better. The recommendation for brain healthy exercise is 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity aerobic and/or resistance exercises. Read this article to know more about how exercise affects your brain and what you need to do: https://www.ubhcare.com/post/exercise-and-your-brain-should-i-why-how-when
Emotional Stress causes the body to release cortisol which impairs estrogen production. So it is essential for women to be emotionally intelligent, learn and follow relaxation techniques and maintain their emotional hygiene, throughout the lifespan.
Women have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep from 30 years of age onwards, more so during their menopause years. Read this article to learn more about how you can adopt healthy sleep behaviours and why it is so important: https://www.ubhcare.com/post/sleeping-your-way-to-good-health
If you are a woman, be aware of this. Take steps in the brain healthy direction. What is good for the brain, is good for the heart as well.
If you are a man, support the women in your life to adopt brain healthy behaviours. Share the knowledge with her and encourage her.
Unified Brain Health Care is one of a kind integrated Neuro Rehabilitation Centre in Chennai for adults and children offering in person and online therapy in Cognitive Neuropsychology, Clinical Psychology, Psychiatry, Speech Therapy, Physiotherapy, Occupational Therapy, Clinical Nutrition, Career Counselling, Fitness Coaching and Educational Intervention. We also offer Family and Marriage Counselling, help for PCOS, care during pregnancy, post-pregnancy care for new moms, infant and early childhood stimulation, infant and young child nutrition, care for caregivers and promote holistic brain health.