It’s the organ that affects our body’s functioning and wellbeing – from top to toe. And the brain adapts and evolves as a woman goes through various ages and stages. From the moment a girl takes her first breath, to the time a woman takes her last, the brain is a vital and dynamic mechanism.
Here we explore some of the many changes the brain goes through during a lifetime…
When it comes to sex and love, the female brain is an important piece of the puzzle, because desire and arousal involve as invisible ‘on’/’off’ mechanism in the brain. When we feel aroused the ‘on’ switch dominates – and the ‘off’ switch that reminds us why we shouldn’t find a certain person attractive takes a step back!
This on/off mechanism relies on a complex network in the brain fuelled by chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin and noradrenaline.
“We know dopamine release lends to feelings of intense pleasure and the motivation to seek out the pleasurable experience again,” says Dr Sarah McKay, a neuroscientist and author of The Women’s Brain Book.
“Oxytocin triggers labour, it’s involved in lactation, love, pair bonding and orgasm. There’s also some correlation between oxytocin acting as a buffer against stress. It nudges us towards social connection and, perhaps, is a biochemical means by which we vaccinate against stress.”
On the flip side, the brain chemical serotonin is a sexual dampener – which is why people taking selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors for depression can see their libido flag.
The medication has a ‘sexual braking’ effect, says McKay.
The female brain is also a major player when it comes to the big O. Around 30 different areas of the brain are activated before, during and after orgasm. But, unlike the male orgasm which is an essential step in releasing sperm for conception, the female orgasm isn’t biologically necessary.
Scientists say it may simply happen so a woman’s body and brain are flooded with the chemicals that encourage closeness and bonding – so they are motivated to stay with a partner and have babies.
There’s a persistent myth that women suffer ‘baby brain’ during pregnancy, says McKay.
“Some studies show that, in very late stages of pregnancy, some aspects of memory or thinking are slightly impaired – but that may be to do with a lack of sleep. The hormones that flood our brain during pregnancy, like oestrogen, oxytocin and prolactin, actually have positive effects on brain health and cognition,” she says.
But pregnancy does alter the makeup of the female brain, and those changes can be permanent. The surge of fluctuation of sex-related hormones including oestrogen, progesterone, prolactin, oxytocin and cortisol bring changes in the brain’s grey matter, and this especially affects something that scientists call ‘the theory of mind’. This relates to how we read faces and emotions.
McKay says studies of the brains of female rodents – which scientists believe may also apply to humans – show that brain changes see females automatically develop maternal, protective behaviours, such as nesting.
Detailed brain studies in rodents also revealed how these same chemicals made female rats who had reproduced act ‘braver’, have a better memory, and become better at foraging and catching prey.
Perhaps even more interesting is that these brain benefits seem to last for life, with research showing that older female rats who’ve had young tend to display healthier ageing brains.
“Motherhood is not quite an MBA for our brain, but there is plenty of evidence that it can make us smarter,” says McKay.
Did you know? A 2017 study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience found that some of the changes in the brain during pregnancy lasted as long as two years after giving birth.
Menopause usually occurs around age 51 and hot flushes are a common side effect. Part of the brain called the hypothalamus controls hot flushes because it can tweak the body’s natural thermostat.
But Dr Sarah McKay says research shows remaining fit and active may lessen their impact.
“Exercise doesn’t reduce the number of hot flushes but being fit and healthy does make them much more bearable,” she explains. “Women who are fitter, who take care of their mental health, who have social supports and who reduce stress tend to find the transition to menopause easier.”
Between 40 and 60 percent of menopausal women also complain of not sleeping soundly and waking at night for no obvious reason. The body clock, or circadian clock, that dictates when we wake and when we feel sleepy is also in the hypothalamus, and fluctuating hormones during menopause may affect how smoothly that clock runs.
McKay adds that midlife can also be a time when women are juggling a multitude of stresses – teenage children, ageing parents, relationship problems and a busy working life – and this may exacerbate poor sleep.
“Good sleep hygiene can help. Avoid stimulants around bedtime, keep your bedroom dark and cool and limit artificial light sources after sundown,” advises McKay.
‘Brain fog’ is another complaint of mid-life and menopause. It describes difficult focusing, confusion and forgetfulness. Some of this may be a result of poor sleep, but there is an interplay between the brain and oestrogen. Oestrogen keeps our thinking sharp because it keeps synapses in the brain healthy and firing. Falling oestrogen levels in menopause sees those synapses become less efficient.
“Oestrogen keeps us cognitively fit, emotionally balanced and when levels of oestrogen start to go down, that can have an impact on some women. After menopause, when hormones flatline, women recover and that brain fog goes away,” says McKay.
Did you know? Alzheimer’s is more common in women, and a study published in PLoS One says one factor may be falling oestrogen levels during menopause, which causes metabolic changes in the brain.
The older brain can be too readily linked to issues like dementia and memory loss, but an ageing brain doesn’t have to be a decaying one. Around 30 per cent of longevity is tied up with the genes we are given – but that means around 70 per cent of how long we live and how well we live is to do with lifestyle, such as exercise, a healthy diet, reducing stress and building social connections.
And it’s never too late for the female brain to continue to grow, change and to build new connections between neurons.
McKay says the example of French woman Jeanne Calment shows how the brain can change as it ages. Calment was born in February 1875 and died in 1997 – she was 122 years and 164 days old. While blind, almost deaf and wheelchair bound, those who knew Calment said she remained alert until her death.
“When she was 118 years old, a group of researchers did neuropsychological tests on her to test her verbal memory and mathematical skills. Jeanne repeated the tests over six months and, during that time, her test results improved,” says McKay.
“Brain scans confirmed that even at 118, her brain retained the capacity for plasticity or to change.”
She adds that dementia is not an inevitable consequence of ageing and while there is no cure for those who have it, there are steps that can be taken to try to reduce the risk. Maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking and staying mentally active and stimulated all help.
Want to keep your brain young? Cut down on stress. It’s thought that a higher stress load can drive the female brain towards faster age-related decline. Time to start meditating…