Estrogen and Your Nervous System
What makes the female nervous system unique?
Did you know that the female brain is sort of the default setting for humans?
It’s only after an embryo is exposed to testosterone that the brain begins to change.
These changes include decreasing connections and even size of the part of the brain that manages language and emotions.
In fact, the first two years of life are drastically different neurologically speaking depending on sex. Females have exposure to large amounts of estrogen, while males do not.
We often hear that progesterone is calming and regulating for the nervous system, which is true in its own way. However, far more important is how estrogen is there from the very beginning shaping our neural networks.
Estrogen makes our brains and nervous systems unique, different from men’s. This impacts from in utero until many years beyond as we enter our cycling years. Estrogen fluctuations throughout the cycle also impact brain function and how our nervous system might respond to certain situations.
How estrogen impacts the female brain may be more well known but what many don’t know is that estrogen also increases vagal tone.
What does this mean?
The vagus nerve is the 10th cranial nerve that is often called the “wandering nerve” for how long it is and all the places it goes to. This nerve is highly evolved in us as human mammals. It goes to our lungs and hearts and stomachs and intestines and even our cervixes. It’s part of the autonomic nervous system, more specifically the parasympathetic branch.
The autonomic nervous system is what regulates all the functions of the body that we don’t think about! Such as breathing or your heartbeat, digestion, sweating, ovulation and even sexual responses to a certain extent. It has two branches, the sympathetic and parasympathetic.
Vagal tone is required for a healthy function of the parasympathetic branch of the ANS.
Furthermore, the vagus nerve has two branches - a ventral (towards the front) and a dorsal (towards the back).
The dorsal vagus is more primordial and helps us escape threat by going into a collapse state or a freeze state with the sympathetic nervous system also on board.
The ventral vagus is more evolved and helps us navigate conflict or threat through tend and befriend. This can turn into fawning when it’s paired with the sympathetic nervous system. This part is highly adaptive and also is the part of the nervous system that allows us to connect, enjoy relating, create community, relax and have fun.
Let’s put this all together…
Estrogen increases our capacity as females to be in this ventral vagus parasympathetic nervous system.
This is what allows us to be great community leaders, care for the collective and find solutions to complex interrelational dynamics without violence. I’m not saying that men can’t cultivate those same capacities! Yet, we as women do have the biological advantage here.
It’s also true that women need access to the full range of the nervous system, including the fight and flight responses to threats that live in the sympathetic side of the nervous system.
Estrogen waxes and wanes throughout our reproductive lives. Even the types of estrogen changes based on if we’re pregnant or not or if we’ve crossed the threshold into menopause.
With the menstrual cycle and the changes in estrogen that it brings, we experience a wide range of our nervous system capacity. As estrogen rises, you may find yourself noticing more desire to connect, collaborate and create community. As it wanes, you may feel that part of yourself retreating.
The premenstrual time is an example of this. Although estrogen is still in circulation, it’s not as robust as progesterone in a normal, healthy cycle. During this part of the cycle, we may not feel as easily connected or collaborative and we may notice more sympathetic activation. This isn’t bad or wrong in any way. It’s something to be aware of and know how to work with.
This is all a normal part of being a woman.
This is the knowledge that we should all receive as young girls!
Hormones aren’t a problem. Instead, they offer us a map towards our truest and deepest essence. They can be our guides and our power source.
I’ve helped many women heal from this using the methods I’ve outlined above. If you’re interested in exploring this more be sure you’re receiving my Womb Tending Weekly email for updates on courses, workshops and working with me one on one.
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