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Your Brain on Menopause

Hormone surges and dips throughout menopause affect your brain as well as the rest of your body. Here's what happens and why, and how to cope.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

You have this incredible best friend named Hannah. And you have been through it all, together - marriage, pregnancy, parenting, job promotions, job loss, spousal problems, maybe even divorce. There isn't anything that you and Hannah haven't shared in your lifelong friendship. You couldn't be closer if you were sisters.

Then one day you meet Hannah for lunch. You're wearing this brand new blue sweater and you can't wait to get her opinion on it. But when you ask her how she likes it, she says it's nice -- but comments that she likes you better in pink.

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Too Young for Menopause

When she was 26, Lara Dietz learned she had breast cancer -- a shock to this mother of two very young children. Then came the second blow. When treatment began, so did premature menopause. "I was having hot flashes," she says. "I felt like I was 55 years old." When menopause occurs between ages 45 to 55, it is considered "natural." When it occurs before age 40 -- regardless the cause -- it is called premature menopause. The ovaries no longer produce an egg each month, so monthly menstrual cycles...

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KABOOM! In an instant, your best friend turns into the wicked witch of the West! You're feeling hurt beyond belief, immediately convinced she's always been jealous of you, and, totally certain that the only reason she said you look better in pink is because you actually look better in blue! Within moments you work yourself up into believing she was never really your friend at all.

What's going on? It's just your brain -- on menopause! A time when everything can seem topsy-turvey, when you cry at the drop of a hat, when every single molehill looks like a mountain, and, yes, a time when even a seemingly innocent comment from a good friend can leave you screaming mad or unbearably hurt.

Menopause Hormones Affect the Brain, Too

But what's happening, and why? In a word, the answer is "hormones."

"The constant change of hormone levels during this time can have a troubling effect on emotions ... leaving some women to feel irritable and even depressed," reports the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Indeed, while everyone thinks of hormones as the chemicals that drive our reproductive system, in truth, there are receptors for both estrogen and progesteronethroughout our body.

When these hormone levels begin to decline, as they do in the months and years leading up to menopause, every system that has these hormone receptors registers the change, and that includes your brain.

And while most of us can recite chapter and verse about what happens to our uterus or ovaries around this time (including problems like irregular bleeding or declining fertility), we hear very little about what happens when the hormone receptors in our brain begin running on empty!

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