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Menopause and the Central Nervous System

Pilates has become well known as a great way to activate the core, improve posture and help alleviate the aches and of everyday life. But for many people, the positive impact of practising Pilates on the Central Nervous System can be just as effective for eliminating discomfort and tension in the body and supporting optimal whole-body health. For women moving into menopause and beyond, Pilates is particularly beneficial, as many of the most uncomfortable symptoms associated with menopause – such as hot flushes, anxiety and disturbed sleep – are exacerbated by the way in which hormonal fluctuations affect our central nervous system (CNS). 

What is the CNS?

The CNS is the main control centre in your body and is responsible for a range of functions such as breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature, It consists of two key parts: the brain and the spinal cord. The brain is where you think, feel, and process information. The spinal cord is like a message highway, connecting your brain to the rest of your body.

The Accelerator versus the Brake

The CNS has two operating modes, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS).  Think of the SNS as the all systems go ‘fight or flight'’ action system. When you face a sudden challenge or excitement, like being scared, running from danger or a high intensity spin class, the SNS kicks in. It makes your heart beat faster, your breath quicken, and your body prepare to take immediate action. It's like hitting the accelerator pedal, getting you ready to move fast!

The PNS is the "rest and digest" system. When you're safe and want to unwind or have enjoyed a good meal, the PNS takes over. It slows your heart rate, helps with digestion, and lets your body rest. It's like applying the brake pedal, helping you calm down and recharge.

These systems work together in harmony. When the SNS revs up, the PNS takes a break, and vice versa, enabling your body to respond correctly to different situations. However, the hormonal fluctuations of menopause, along with the juggling act of family life, work commitments and often caring for older relatives for many midlife women, can have an upregulating effect on the CNS, giving rise to increased time in ‘fight and flight’ and far less in the ‘rest and digest’ mode.  The effects of this can exacerbate a number of the all-too-common menopause symptoms 

Alleviating symptoms of the Menopause

With consistency of practice, Pilates can reduce chronic stress levels, benefiting the CNS by alleviating psychological symptoms commonly experienced during menopause, such as anxiety and irritability as well as physiological ones.

The pivotal way in which Pilates supports the CNS to find harmony and balance is that it promotes controlled breathing and mindfulness techniques. As breathing is automatically controlled by the CNS, when we practise controlled voluntary patterns of breathing it acts as an override, helping the CNS to switch from ‘fight and flight’ into ‘rest and digest’ mode.  

Cognitive Health 

Pilates incorporates exercises that challenge the mind-body connection, enhancing cognitive function and mental clarity. This is particularly helpful for women experiencing cognitive changes during menopause, such as difficulties with memory and concentration. Enhanced blood circulation is another great benefit for overall neurological health. 

Regular physical activity, including Pilates, helps the body to manage hormonal changes more effectively, supporting overall well-being and CNS health. The CNS's thermoregulatory centres are involved in temperature regulation, and supporting the CNS to find balance between its two operating modes can help to reduce common hallmarks symptoms of the menopause, such as hot flashes and night sweats.

Restful Sleep

Practising Pilates helps to regulate cortisol levels by reducing chronic stress, promoting relaxation, as well as releasing endorphins, natural mood elevators. Noticing bodily sensations will also help the CNS to switch from SNS to PNS mode. This can help alleviate mood swings and promote emotional and mental well-being. By reducing stress, anxiety, and muscle tension, Pilates can enhance sleep patterns. Quality sleep contributes to the rejuvenation of the CNS, which relies on restful sleep for optimal functioning, and in turn fuels our hormonal and cognitive health.

Try our Pilates for Menopause programme here.

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