While scientists don’t know exactly what causes Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, they do know that hormones play a major role.
Hormones are the body’s chemical messengers, responsible for everything from signaling neurotransmitters and directing nutrients and blood to different parts of the body, to stabilizing sleep, metabolism and mood.
When hormone levels in the body change, you can experience both physical and mental/emotional symptoms. For example, low thyroid hormones are thought to account for many cases of chronic fatigue.
One of the most dramatic changes in hormone levels is the one that affects women at menopause. It can put you at greater risk of dementia. Here’s what happens, how it affects brain health, and what you can do to protect yourself.
Menopause may be the best known example of the effect of hormones. When estrogen and progesterone start to fluctuate and decrease at the onset of menopause, it causes a host of symptoms including. . .
- Hot flashes and night sweats
- Waning libido
- Hair loss
- Dry skin
- Weight gain, especially around the midsection
While these symptoms are fairly common, and the ones we hear about most often, changing hormones at menopause also cause lesser-known symptoms such as. . .
- Depression and anxiety
- Mood swings
- Brain fog
Brain fog is an umbrella term for a constellation of symptoms such as trouble concentrating, memory failures, extreme mental fatigue, confusion and short-to-no attention span. These symptoms are often dismissed as “just growing older,” but they’re very real, and can also indicate an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Estrogen and Alzheimer’s Disease
Estrogen and progesterone are steroid sex hormones that not only contribute to female fertility but also play an important role in brain functioning for both men and women. Estrogen is part of the brain’s signaling system, and it helps direct blood to parts of the brain that are more active.1
Fluctuation of estrogen contributes to brain fog and mood swings that come with menopause, and explains why women going through the change are more focused and feel better on some days than others.
Estrogen is also key in the normal maintenance of brain function in the nucleus basalis of Meynert (NBM). Degeneration of the NBM is found in people with Alzheimer’s disease, and less estrogen in the brain can contribute to this degeneration.2
These fluctuating hormones also contribute to insomnia, which not only impairs memory but also causes extra stress and inflammation in the body because it’s not able to fully restore and repair itself at night. Deep sleep is when the brain moves short-term memories into long-term storage. Frequent interruptions in sleep are deadly to memory.
Beyond Estrogen: Other Important Hormones
It’s not all about “female hormones.” Other hormones such as insulin, leptin and amylin decrease as both men and women age, which means your body has fewer natural antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agents. This makes your body and brain more susceptible to the damaging effects of free radicals, inflammation and excess cortisol.
Research shows these hormone decreases have a direct effect on brain functioning and contribute to cognitive decline, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.3
Another important hormone is gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter that regulates communication between brain cells.
A study published in January 2017 in the journal Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging found that older adults who had lower levels of GABA in the frontal lobes of their brain (the part that handles complex cognitive functioning) performed worse on cognitive tests compared to those who had higher GABA levels.4
However, all is not lost. There are things you can do to boost production of GABA, estrogen and other important hormones to help keep your brain healthy.
How to Manage Your Hormones for Better Brain Health
Two important things you can do yourself to prevent diminishing hormones, especially diminishing estrogen, are. . .
(1) Keep stress under control and
(2) Maintain a healthy diet.
Excess stress contributes to a flood of cortisol in your body, which, if left untended, can essentially corrode your organs and neurotransmitters, making you vulnerable to disease and dementia.
A healthy diet of whole foods and nutrients can actually boost hormone production, increasing your body’s natural defenses. Foods said to increase estrogen specifically include alfalfa, barley, baker’s yeast, beets, cherries, chickpeas, carrots, celery, cucumbers, dates, fennel, oats, olives and olive oil, papaya, peas, plums, pomegranates, potatoes, beans, rhubarb, rice, tomatoes, wheat and yams.
A few things you can do to increase waning hormones in your body, whether you’re a woman going through menopause or not, are:
|✔||Move every day. Not necessarily “exercise” but movement like walking or hiking outside in nature, bike riding, etc. These activities reduce stress while increasing GABA production.|
|✔||Take time for self-care. Rest, take a hot bath, do yoga, read, take a nap… These things help you manage stress, sleep better and reduce cortisol.|
|✔||Eat whole foods, healthy fats and raw organic cacao. Cacao (dark chocolate) has been shown to boost hormones and reduce cortisol. (See Issue #94 for more information about the benefits of cacao for memory loss and dementia.)|
|✔||Practice mindfulness. Pay attention to what you’re doing when you’re doing it. Don’t let yourself be so distracted and stressed out that you can’t remember where you put your keys, whether or not the stove was left on or what you came into the room for. Be aware of your actions.|
These are easy steps you can take daily to counteract the natural decrease in hormones that happen as you age. While you can’t turn back the clock, you can meet the future with a box of tools and a set of choices that will keep you healthy longer.
How about hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for women? It’s a big subject. I’m certain you don’t want to do it with synthetic hormones, as medical doctors recommended for many years until it was found to cause breast cancer.
My understanding is that HRT is safe and effective if done with bioidentical hormones – the same ones naturally found in the human body. To find out if bioidentical HRT is appropriate for you, seek out a doctor who practices this approach (NOTE: most conventional MDs do not.).
- Menopause and brain function.
- Hormonal influences on cognition and risk for Alzheimer disease.
- The therapeutic potential of metabolic hormones in the treatment of age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.
- Age-related GABA decline is associated with poor cognition.