This week we are celebrating women’s health week, each year the Jean Hailes organisation dedicates 1 week to focus on women making good health decisions. The week is a reminder to set aside that time needed for your health and wellbeing.
In honour of this week we want to have a chat about women’s brains. It's actually fascinating to learn about what happens inside the brains and bodies of women as they move through the phases of their lives. I recently read a book called The Women’s Brain Book written by Dr Sarah McKay who is a neuroscientist and she knows A LOT about ladies brains.
The book covers the changes in our brain the span our life cycle from birth, adolescence, adulthood, motherhood and out into our twilight years.
It really cements what I truly already believe;
1. The brain is a magnificent thing
2. Women all through our stages in life are truly magnificent
A good read if you want to learn more about the truly incredible organ that is the brain BUT what really got my attention was how our brain works through pregnancy, in utero and throughout motherhood.
Keep reading for some interesting information about our brains throughout pregnancy & motherhood.
The magic starts before we are even born
Being a women allows most of us to embark on the amazing and life changing journey that is creating life.
In a healthy pregnancy, most of the neurogenesis is complete by about month 5-6 and then something unexpected seems to happen, half of all neurons born in the developing brain die before birth! Although it seems like such a waste to kill off newborn neurons it is actually just like giving your brain a good prune. Massive proliferation followed by removal is how our brains streamlines networks so it works more efficiently and adapts to the world we live in.
Blaming our poor hold hormones
We have all experienced as women the blame game thats placed on a woman's hormones. Which effect our moods, how we deal with certain situations, our ability to contain our emotions?
Our poor hormones (hello estrogen) continue to get blamed for emotional instability throughout a womens life cycle, puberty, during and after pregnancy (baby brain), after giving birth (baby blues) and during menopause (brain fog) but in actual fact during all these different life stages oestrogen is actually neuro-protective and helps improve our moods.
What I mean by neuro-protective, as it sounds. In this case oestrogen is actually protecting our cells.
As far as studies go, yes, hormones do influence our emotions but this is not a negative thing. This happens through altering the way in which neurons communicate with each other. Hormones latch on to something within a cell called a receptor but they can only do this to a cell if the receptor is present. Think of this as a lock and key scenario - The receptor is the lock and the hormone the key. Turning that key sets off a whole range of biological responses inside the cell.
There is a lot of information around how our hormones work through the body but we should not put blame on them we need to honour them and be amazed at how everything works so intrinsically together
Without a doubt our cognitive abilities and intelligence are not directly effected by our hormones.
Stress responders in a woman's brain
Did you know that there are two biological pathways that work together to mediate the stress response; The sympathetic nervous system and the HPA axis. These two systems exist in our bodies to maintain physiological balance. The sympathetic nervous system is on the front line - the fight or flight response to stress and the HPA axis is slower to respond but lasts longer.
Wait a minute as we get a bit more complex….
The HPA axis releases a hormone called Cortisol, which can have a bit of a bad rep…you see you need just the right amount in your body and when it’s out of whack it can lead to forms of depression. Studies show that for women our stress response is slightly blunted meaning that we can experience lasting depression, decreased energy supply and fatigue after significant stressful periods or life events and what’s even more interesting is that the stress response and the differences between male and female hormones emerge in puberty and disappear at menopause. What’s truly fascinating is that regardless of our stress response, during pregnancy a woman develops in-built mechanisms to buffer babies against stress!! CRAZY. Our entire HPA axis quietens and we actually become less anxious and reactive to external stressors.
How amazing are our bodies?
I could go on talking about a woman's brain forever but lastly I want to talk about the term ‘baby brain’…is it a myth?
The ‘baby brain’ theme has been well researched indeed both in humans and non-humans. While most women (as many as 3 out of 4) me being one of them state they are more forgetful, foggy and have a lack of concentration during pregnancy and the first few years of motherhood.
The research and evidence actually shows pregnancy and motherhood have no effect on memory and wait for it…studies have also shown that pregnancy can improve cognition.
All chemical indicators of pregnancy are geared towards mental sharpness and good moods, which makes sense as our brains are flooded with feel good chemicals oxytocin, prolactin and estrogen. What was really interesting about this chapter in the book is from the research it was surprising how much of a strong feeling women had attached to this sense of not performing as well as they used to, could it stem from cultural expectations? Does it have to do with our mental load and balance as we transition back into the workforce and what would happen if we instead said my brain is on fire today and truly believed in our amazing capabilities both pre and post baby. SO BABY BRAIN….Sorry guys according to the research it’s a myth.
If you made it to the end of this blog well done legend, there was so much more that could be included but if you want to truly immerse yourself in the wonders of how a woman’s brain works you can always read Dr Sarah McKays book.
As we celebrate women this week it really is eye opening to start to look into how truly incredible our body is, which is why we should focus on taking care of it.
So go do something to honour your health this week.
If you want to find out more about Women's health week you can head to the website here.
This year the week was broken down into 5 topics -
Check me out
Move and improve
Until next time guys, keep blooming.
Wildflower Genna x
Some of the text from this blog piece was taken from ‘The women’s brain book - the neuroscience of health, hormones and happiness’ Dr Sarah McKay.