This is Your Brain on Menopause

Warning: It can be a bit of a roller coaster. Here's what to expect.

reproductive-flower
Photo by Gracia Lam

Sleep woes: Can't fall asleep or stay that way? The reason might be night sweats, which sometimes accompany hormonal changes around menopause, or it might be sleep issues that started prior to menopause. "Our research shows that most women who had sleep issues before experience problems through menopause and beyond," says Ellen Freeman, Ph.D., a research professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Pennsylvania.



As for heat surges, Mary Jane Minkin, M.D., a certified menopause clinician and a professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the Yale School of Medicine, suggests minimizing discomfort by keeping the bedroom cool and using a dual-control heated blanket so you can stay cool while your partner stays warm. Also, place a clean nightgown next to the bed so you can quickly change if you wake up drenched.

Brain fog: No, you're not losing your mind—you're losing your estrogen. "There's a clear connection between estrogen and cognition. Dropping hormone levels can contribute to an unfocused feeling," says Cynthia R. Green, Ph.D., the CEO of Total Brain Health, a company that provides memory-improvement lectures and training.

Being busy or overwhelmed can cause your memory and attention span to suffer, says Green, so say no more often—and mean it. In addition to eating well, getting enough shut-eye, and exercising regularly, drink lots of water. Research shows that even mild dehydration reduces women's ability to concentrate. Green also recommends doing games against the clock, like Elevate, Fit Brains Trainer, and Luminosity Brain Trainer, which can improve memory and hone focus. Meanwhile, hang in there: The fog will lift as your hormones settle down.

Sapped sex drive: Vaginal dryness can make intercourse unpleasant. (Lube works wonders.) And hot flashes and moodiness can make you feel less than sexy. Women's levels of libido-revving testosterone also plummet in midlife. "There's no FDA-approved testosterone for women—the guy stuff is too strong—but doctors sometimes [prescribe it] at low doses for women, and it does increase sexual desire," says Minkin. Even so, she stresses that hormones are only part of the picture. Squashing stress and spicing things up to beat boredom can improve your relationship and sexual self-image.

The blues: "The risk of depression is greater during menopause, especially for women who have experienced depression in the past," says Sheryl M. Green, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral neurosciences at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario. Fluctuating hormones are the probable culprit, since they influence an area of the brain that's responsible for keeping mood stable. Night sweats may play a role, since poor-quality sleep may significantly contribute to depression. If you're down in the dumps for a couple of weeks, talk to your doctor or a psychologist. Research has shown that antidepressants, talk therapy, and exercise all improve mood.