Hormones are very important to women’s bodies, as they don’t just regulate the functions of sexual organs, but many parts of the female metabolism. One of the main hormones is called estrogen. Both estrogen and another hormone called progesterone work together to regulate the female reproductive cycle including menstruation and ovulation. Estrogen is also involved in the physical maturation of women when they reach puberty and can cause a lot of problems when it isn’t in balance with one another.
Estrogen and progesterone go into decline when a woman faces menopause, which leads to many uncomfortable physical symptoms such as hot flashes, loss of bone mass, headaches, dizziness and a host of other things. However, a woman can suffer from fluctuations of estrogen levels in her blood for various reasons.
These fluctuations of estrogen levels have also been shown to cause several psychological effects, such as irritability, depression, anxiety and memory loss. In a recent study from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) several women with fluctuating estrogen levels were found to have disrupted memory and emotional functions.
The study took a total of 6 months to complete, and women were tested under three different physical conditions. These included having their ovaries suppressed by a drug called leuprolide acetate, as well as being treated with leuprolide with estrogen and leuprolide with progesterone. A total of 39 women took part in the study, and they were all healthy females with normal menstruation cycles.
The target of the study was estrogen’s effect on a brain intermediary messenger known as BDNF (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor) which is directly involved in memory functions of the brain. Only women with two specific genes for BDNF were included as test subjects. All the women underwent two types of scans, namely a positron emission tomography (PET) and functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI).
The results of the study were very clear. When the women were treated with Estradiol, which is an artificial form of estrogen, the brain seemed to respond very differently to BDNF, meaning that the connection in the brain circuits wasn’t connecting as well as they should. The women were scanned as they performed memory tasks, and the resulting images showed that at least a quarter of the test subjects struggled with their memory when given artificial estrogen.
The findings are very significant, more so because the test subjects were human. Although tests on the effects of estrogen have been done before, they were mostly performed on mice and not human models. The results will hopefully shed light on how estrogen affects women’s brains.
The study also signifies a preliminary step in understanding how hormonal fluctuations can be the cause of several psychological and mental problems, such as anxiety, depression, mood disorders and schizophrenia since all these illnesses are linked to imbalances of hormone and brain chemical levels.
The suppression of the brain’s memory circuit when it is exposed to manipulated levels of estrogen is a significant finding. It reveals yet another part of the puzzle in the journey to understand how hormones and enzymes that have nothing to do with the brain can actually cause illnesses. It will also shed light on how doctors and scientists can approach new treatments for mental illnesses in females in the future.
Alternatively, the findings of these and other similar studies on how female hormones affect mood, memories and emotions also vindicate women, who have often been vilified for using hormonal fluctuations to explain certain decisions and behaviors. Hopefully, society will begin to realize that there is indeed solid proof that women are not making things up and that their struggle is real. If you’re a woman, you can stop feeling guilty about feeling the way you feel, as it’s not always your fault.
Gentle reminder: The information on this article is not meant to replace a qualified healthcare professional and should not be considered as professional advice. Please seek appropriate medical help when necessary.