The New Feminine Brain: How Women Can Develop Their Inner Strengths, Genius, and Intuition
By Mona Lisa Schulz, M.D., Ph.D.
If you have a nontraditional feminine brain, it's critical for your emotional and physical health that you do what Dolly Part on suggests, "Find out who you are and do it on purpose." Don't try to fit your unique brain style into a career and lifestyle that makes other people accept you but makes you miserable. Excessive exercise, anorexia nervosa, and excessive dieting can alter estrogen and progesterone levels and affect the female brain.
Debra was always die apple of her father's eye. In a Christian family of seven (two girls, three boys), she was the free-spirited tomboy. She rode four-wheelers with her father through the backwoods, bought her first motorcycle at age sixteen, and excelled in math and science, especially chemistry. While her sister was cooking for church picnics, Debra was riding her motorcycle with the boys behind the church. This all worked until she was to go off to college.
Debra had wanted to be a doctor, but her parents wanted her to go to a Christian college to become a teacher. Debra had to choose between her father's love and acceptance and her future. She ran away from home and used her savings to become a nurse. Although Debra reveled in working in the medical environment that she had always craved to be in, she also felt somewhat unsatisfied. Back at home, her sister, "the normal daughter," got married and had several children.
The rift between Debra and her family healed over the years, but an inner core in Debra did not. She became depressed, gained a lot of weight, and grew unsightly body hair. At the age of forty-two, Debra became conflicted over whether or not to have kids. Even though being around kids had always irritated her and she had never really wanted children, society and her family had programmed her to believe that she wouldn't be a real woman until she became a mother. So Debra tried to have children anyway, couldn't get pregnant due to irregular periods, and finally was given a diagnosis of polycystic ovary disease. Debra was trying to take her masculinized brain style and fit it into a traditional feminine life, and it was making her sick and miserable.
Polycystic ovary disease (PCO) is a complex disorder in which a woman's hormonal rhythms go haywire. Patients often become obese, depressed, and infertile; they grow unsightly hair and their menstrual cycles become wildly irregular as their levels of testosterone and other androgens go up. The prolonged, unstable elevated hormonal patterns increase the incidence of endometrial and breast cancer. Hyperinsulinism and obesity increase the chances of hypercholesterolemia, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. Although physicians used to treat patients with PCO with a variety of hormonal treatments, including the Pill, we now realize that a food plan low in carbohydrates and fat with moderate levels of protein can reduce insulin resistance and normalize weight, hormones, and the menstrual cycle. No one really knows how many people have this disorder because many women may have some but not all of the symptoms. Now, many scientists believe that, with the epidemic of obesity in the United States, many women have elements of the insulin resistance that sets the scene for the hormonal problems characterizing PCO.
In the twenty-first century, society sometimes denigrates women with traditional female brains who want to focus a large portion of their adult life on nurturing and motherhood. If a woman believes she must tough it out and fit into the newer societally dictated role of "having it all," combining a career with motherhood, she may snap under the pressure emotionally and physically. The following story is a case in point.
Nadine, thirty-five, had gone to Columbia University in New York and majored in both English literature and political science. She also had been a fiercely competitive tennis player and an intensely perfectionist, serious student. Her father had a law firm in which she had always been slated to become a full partner. Once she finished law school, Nadine married a schoolmate and moved into one of the best corner offices. Everything was "on schedule." Nadine even passed her law bar exams on the first try.
Once Nadine began her first year of practice, however, a nameless discomfort and fatigue took over her. She began to think she was pushing herself too hard in her daily hourly workouts with her trainer, so she dropped them. She dropped her birth control for the first time in her life and tried to get pregnant. Months went by and the only thing that stayed on schedule was the growth of Nadine's law practice. She didn't get pregnant as she wanted, and her frustration and fatigue mounted.
Nadine went through three expensive rounds of IVF (in vitro fertilization) without success. Her fatigue got worse and Nadine became more obsessed with her weight. Some doctors were concerned that her teenage episode of anorexia had recurred.
When I talked to Nadine, she was miserable, exhausted, falling behind at work. She was obsessed by the idea that others in her father s law firm would perceive her as "slacking off." Nadine told me she secretly wanted to be a mother, stay at home with a baby, and even homeschool her kids. She wanted five kids and didn't see herself as a lawyer for the rest of her life. Everything she had worked for, perfectly scheduled and executed, seemed hollow now. Once she actually felt what it was like to be a lawyer, she couldn't believe she had spent all that money for all those years of study.
Nadine was very concerned about her body. Her periods had stopped and she had severe constipation. She blamed these symptoms on residual hormonal imbalances from all the IVF treatments but it was obvious that at 5'7" and 110 pounds (having lost 30 pounds), Nadine was suffering from anorexia nervosa. In addition to having a distorted body image and episodes of overeating, vomiting, or overexercise, patients like Nadine with anorexia nervosa usually come from families where success, achievement, and appearance reign supreme. Nadine didn't want to even talk about the possibility of quitting law and leaving her father's law firm-it "just wasn't an option." Anorexia is said to develop when the "role of the perfect child" becomes too difficult. Ironically, it appeared that for Nadine to become pregnant and enter into the role of being a parent, she had to resign from being "The Perfect Child" with her family, and risk disappointing her father and other family members.
Some women so stress themselves that, in their quest for perfection and their attempts to fit into the competitive world, they tip the hormones in their body away from normal levels. For example, women who compulsively exercise their way into anorexia lower their body's estrogen levels; as a result, the androgen "male" hormonal level goes up. Nadine's straining to be a perfect daughter was ironically working against her ability to be a perfect wife and mother.
The Dangers of Low Estrogen and Rising Testosterone
Believe it or not, a lot of your brain is made of Fat! The neurons in the brain are coated with a protective, fatty coating called myelin that "shrinks" when you lose excessive amounts of weight. So it's not surprising that CT brain scans of patients with anorexia nervosa and bulimia show brain atrophy, which is reversible if the woman gains weight. PET studies of patients with bulimia show loss of normal, right-hemisphere activity. In our society, with its emphasis on thinness, competitiveness, and social status, women are unwittingly transforming themselves into hypertestosterone, hypoestrogenic beings. The pressure on women today to have the pseudoadolescent male body that is typical of today's runway model causes her brain to be more susceptible to moodiness and anxiety. Yet you can learn how to manage your desire for physical fitness and social acceptance.