Why Brain Health?
According to World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Dr. Ren Minghui, the brain is by far the most complex organ of the human body. It allows us to sense, feel, think, move, and interact with the world around us.
Earlier this year, the WHO launched a position paper on brain health optimization to benefit both people and society. They urge the public to not only take care of, but to optimize brain health for us to realise our full potential, improve our quality of life and general wellbeing. In this article, I will explore how the various life events that women may face can cause a detrimental impact on our brain health.
Comparing the Male and Female Brain
Male and female brains are more alike than most of us expect—but there are some subtle differences in brain structure and functions. These differences bring about varying health impacts for males and females, but I’ll talk about that in another article!
Various life events that women go through can have an impact on brain health. These life events include menstrual cycles, pregnancy, menopause, and aging. Through these events, women likely experience physical changes, hormonal changes, social changes etc., that can explain changes in their brain health.
1. Menstrual cycles
Hormones fluctuate seasonally in men and women. The impact of menstrual cycles on brain health is mediated through the changes in hormone levels, specifically estrogen and progesterone.
The figure above illustrates a typical 5-day period and 29-day cycle that may not necessarily be the same for all women. According to the figure, the varying levels of estrogen and progesterone can change our brains-- for the better! Right after our period, we are better at spatial skills. And around 10 days after our period, we have improved imagination, perception, memory, and social abilities.
Pregnant mums may find themselves struggling to remember details, focus on tasks, or basically just giving undivided attention to just about anything. This phenomenon is commonly referred to as the “pregnancy brain” or “mummy brain” and may start as early as the first trimester.
I have yet to experience “mummy brain”, but my sister, who has 3 children had her fair share of that. When she was pregnant, she would frequently misplace her phone, her spectacles and just about anything you can think of!
The physical and mental changes that occur to a mother-to-be is what causes the “mummy brain”.
Researchers believe that the dramatic spike in progesterone and estrogen affects expecting mums’ ability to think clearly, recall easily and focus.
A study reported that women in their second trimester scored worse than non-pregnant women on Spatial Recognition Memory tests (SRM). This means that pregnant mums had trouble remembering locations of certain objects.
During pregnancy, mums will most likely experience a certain degree of insomnia. In early stages of pregnancy, it is likely due to the nagging symptoms of leg cramps, nausea, or heartburn. Towards the later stages of pregnancy, mums may struggle with finding a comfortable position to sleep in and they often wake up to pee.
Having insufficient sleep-- even for those who are not expecting can affect your cognition, mood, and memory!
Stress and Anxiety
Bringing new life to the world—especially if it’s your first time can be stress inducing and exciting all at once! I can only imagine how stressful it is to make preparations for the baby, attend appointments and constantly worry about the baby. This stress and anxiety that expecting mums may experience will take up mental space and it is natural that they have difficulty concentrating.
According to Singhealth, the average age of natural menopause in Asia is 50, while it is 49 in Singapore. Natural menopause is diagnosed after menstruation stops for 12 consecutive months. The physical and hormonal changes can once again cause an impact on brain health.
When transitioning into menopause, many women experience hormone related brain fog. Some common issues include being unable to find the right word, unable to think clearly, make decisions, and being more forgetful. One study showed how women in their early stages of menopause experience issues in cognition. They scored low on verbal learning, memory, motor function, attention, and working memory tasks.
Due to the changes in the body during menopause, women may not be able to prevent brain fog. Having said that, although the brain fog is normal while transitioning into menopause, please do seek medical attention if these issues are starting to impact your lives negatively.
4. Alzheimer’s Disease
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, and it is a progressive disease beginning with mild memory loss and possibly leading to the loss of the ability to carry on a conversation and respond to the environment. Although age can increase one’s risk of the disease, it is not a cause. According to Harvard Health, the incidence of Alzheimer’s is greater in women than in men. Studies done in various parts of the world like Sweden, Taiwan and Europe all reported the same findings.
It is still unclear why women are more prone to Alzheimer’s disease, but Harvard Health suggests some possible reasons, other than the fact that women live longer.
Women generally have stronger immune system than men. When our bodies are fighting infections, amyloid plaques may be produced as a by-product. And these amyloid plaques may be what is causing Alzheimer’s disease. They have highlighted that these are merely theories, and more research needs to be done to prove these theories.
Researchers are unclear what causes the Alzheimer’s disease but there are certain lifestyle factors that may help to prevent it.
Maintaining a Healthy Brain
No matter which life event you may face, here are some tips from Actxa Wellness’ Domain Expert Psychologist Beata Justkowiak on how you can maintain your brain health, and handle whatever challenge comes your way!
The Mediterranean Diet is recommended to maintain our brain health. This diet includes whole foods, whole grains, olive oil, nuts, legumes, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy and red meat sparingly. According to Harvard Health, partial adherence to the Mediterranean diet is better than nothing; good news to those who find it difficult to stick to new eating patterns!
Sleep allows the brain and body to slow down and engage in recovery, promoting better physical and mental performance over the long-term. When it comes to rest, it is more than just sleep, but to relax and clear our minds. People are constantly engaged with the world; it might be uncomfortable to welcome boredom. However, to rest our minds, it is important for us to welcome boredom with open arms!
When performing physical activity to train our brains, it requires more intention and focus—not simply listening to a podcast or a soundtrack when going for a run. When we engage in mind-body activities, it allows us to process challenges and setbacks that we may face throughout the day, allowing us to be more resilient.
An example on how we can focus our attention would be to spot 10 blue items during our run. This simple activity allows for progression and creativity by switching up the number of items you wish to spot or even the number of items!
Focus Our Thoughts
Have you ever responded to emails while you were in meetings? Or are you reading this article while you’re in one?
It is common to multi-task—some people are even proud that they can do so! However, multi-tasking can interrupt with our attention and flow. When we are distracted, we take 22 mins to refocus our attention on a particular task.
One example for mummies to focus your attention would be to stay calm, touch your belly, observe how you’re feeling and thinking for just about 2 mins each time.
Performing Brain Stimulating Activities—If You Wish
Brain stimulating activities like crosswords, word games or brain teasers can indeed improve our memory, cognition, creativity, etc. However, more often than not, we are already overstimulated by the thousand and one things that are happening to us on a daily basis. Sometimes, getting some downtime and allowing our brains to rest is what we need.
Having said that, if you do feel like you need to stimulate your mind, you can do so by trying out these brain stimulating activities.
To conclude, brain health is important to us no matter which life stage we are yet. We need to take good care of our brain health in order to sense, think, feel, move, and interact with the world around us. Fortunately, there are deliberate steps we can take to do so.
If you are looking for an engaging workshop focusing on women’s brain health, drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to do so today!
About The Writer
Sheryl is a Certified Health Coach with a background in Sport Science. Her many years of involvement in sports fuels her passion for helping others with improving their health and wellbeing. When she’s not working, you can find her in the kitchen trying out healthy and delicious recipes, enjoying nature, working out or watching Netflix!
Chat with her: https://www.linkedin.com/in/sherylng-corporate-wellness-trainer/