Mothers fortunate enough to have both male and female children were validated when scientists and medical researchers, after a decades long debate between nature and nurture as it relates to gender roles, revealed what they had known all along – that indeed boys and girls are different.
Doctors and scientists finally admitted that men and women are biologically different and that the role of nurture versus nature coupled with societal expectations in how men and women functioned, is not as significant as originally thought.
In other words, men and women are hard-wired to respond to their environment in remarkably different and gender specific ways.
Likewise, when someone comes a long (and please forgive me gentleman, but, usually male physicians) and tells women that our hormones couldn’t possibly affect our brains, well, frankly, we know better. We know better because we live with it. We live with it way down, deep in our souls and we know that hormones affect every fiber of our being - and most certainly, our brains.
So when I read in Dr. Vliet’s book, Screaming to be Heard: Hormonal Connections Women Suspect, and Doctors Still Ignore that fluctuating estrogen levels have a direct affect on the serotonin and norepinephrine levels in the brain; which in turn have a direct affect on - guess what - our moods; it was yet another validation of what women and mothers everywhere already know - it’s NOT all in our heads! Well, yeah, okay it is in our heads. It’s in our brains.
Whoa, Mags! Sarah & Norah Who?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and presume that many of your are likely a well read bunch and already know quite a bit about serotonin and norepinephrine. What you might not know though is that serotonin and norepinephrine are also neurotransmitters . Neurotransmitters act as messengers, if you will, and transmit all kinds of information via neural pathways throughout our brain.
Serotonin and norepinephrine along with another chemical you’ve also probably heard of, dopamine, work in synergy in our brain and play a powerful and direct role in how we feel. Literally – how we feel. Like our emotions. In fact, when all things are chemically equal, serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine can actually reduce anxiety, improve our sleep, diminish depression and sadness and generally takes us to a happy place.
It only stands to reason then, that if our serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine levels are low or are being interrupted somehow, like say, because of fluctuating estrogen and progesterone levels, that we would have a difficult time with moods, depression, anxiety and insomnia during perimenopause. Which according to Dr. Vliet, is exactly what happens.
Lobe Schmobe – Let’s Take a Look at This
Our brains are comprised of four basic lobes – the Frontal lobe, the Temporal lobe, the Occipital lobe and the Parietal lobe. Within each of these lobes you have other areas of the brain such as the pituitary gland, the olfactory tubercle and the limbic system – among many others.
These four areas, or lobes, communicate to one another and carry out the business of making us who we are via a series of electrical and chemical impulses that run through our brain. The electrical impulses are carried through nerve fibers while the chemical impulses are transmitted by a variety of chemicals compounds including hormones and the aforementioned neurotransmitters serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine.
Keepers of the Biological Gate
We also have these things called receptors in the brain. There are many different types of receptors throughout our body, but all of them act as biological traffic cops, if you will; receiving, directing and modulating the many types of chemical transmissions that occur, carried out by the neurotransmitters, which includes – you got it - serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine.
One type of receptor, the estrogen receptor, is heavily concentrated in the cortex of the brain and the limbic system. The limbic system is the major regulating center for your mood, memory, sleep, sex drive, appetite and pain. As you might expect, if the receptors are having a bad day (like, say, your estrogen is rising & your progesterone is falling) you’re going to have all kinds of biological road rage and chemical smash-ups. (Mood swings anyone?)
In Screaming to be Heard, Dr. Vliet explains it like this: (emphasis mine)
There are multiple connections between the limbic system and all the other parts of the brain….which carries messages to all parts of the body. The rise and fall of estrogen alters serotonin, which affects pathways in the limbic system, which then produces changes in mood, sleep, memory, pain appetite and many other mind-body functions. Changes in hormone levels, in turn, affect the amountof neurotransmitters produced as well as the sensitivity of the neurotransmitter receptors to the chemical messengers. No wonder changing hormone levels at puberty, in pregnancy, after delivery and at menopause can produce such a wide variety of physical and emotional changes!
Okay, so, if you’re anything like me, the first thing that went through myhead was, “Well, if the key to keeping ourselves out of the “crappy place” and in the “happy place” is dependent upon managing the levels of serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine in our brain, then, sign me up and tell me how do we do that!”
Unfortunately, and this should come as no surprise, especially when it is our hormones we are discussing, it’s just not that easy. Mainly because we are all individuals and our body chemistry is individual as well. And as many of you already know about me if you’ve been following my blogs for any length of time, it’s that I don’t believe in a one size fits all approach to anything. Certainly not when we are discussing our perimenopause issues. However, there are certainly some no brainers here that wouldn’t hurt any of us to implement. The first being exercise.
Yeah, I know. I carp on this one a lot and you’ve heard it a millions times. Eat right, sleep right and exercise. It’s the answer to all of our problems. The problem with hearing something often though, is that we become desensitized to it tend to dismiss it as old news, boring news or just irrelevant. But, honestly, it’s not. Good food, plenty of restful sleep and exercise work wonders for most any of our ills and we all know that.
Besides, atheletes have long known fthat any kind of rigorous aerobic exercise, like running or swimming, not only releases endorphins (our body’s natural pain killers) but it also raises naturally those levels of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. Which is responsible for that general feeling of calm and well-being after a good work out. So, we know that, right? Exercise. It’s good for what ails ya.
What about foods? Well, certainly there are plenty of foods we can eat as well. But, rather than get into that now, I think I’ll hold that back for my next post. There is plenty in this post to chew on (pardon the pun) until then. For now, at least, you can relish (there’s another food pun – I’m not trying to do that, I swear) in the fact that all of your perimenopause issues do indeed have a bono-fide biological brain connection.
Finally, I won’t be reviewing every chapter in this book. As I stated in a previous post, the book is long and it would just take up a lot of time trying to cover everything. I will however post more as I read through the book and find something worth sharing with you. Again, if you wish to purchase the book, you can order it at Amazon which you can find in my sidebar.
Catch you all again soon.