We probably don’t let on about it do we? Especially in the workplace, because much of our symptom-suffering tends to be in silence. But I’m sure we’ve all had that ‘moment’ haven’t we?
Whether it’s trying to recall the name of someone, mislaying your car keys or forgetting about the pot on the stove with the rice boiling away to oblivion (you can tell I’ve had experience with this one) or just feeling ‘fuzzy’ and forlorn. As well, if you’ve tested positive for Covid-19, you might be experiencing it too. Brain-fog is a symptom that people experience as they recover from Covid-19. But putting aside Covid-19, when it comes to our menopause transition, your brain-fog is all to do with the reduction of your oestrogen levels affecting the way your nerves talk to each other.
As our oestrogen levels change, our body is ageing. This means that there are changes occurring all around our body that are the result of our biological ageing. Peri-menopause is your transition into the next phase of your life-cycle and the changes often clash with our modern, busy lives and none more so, than the way that lowering oestrogen affects the nerves and blood vessels in your brain. So, with menopause HRT now in short supply here in New Zealand, it’s time to understand what’s really going on and then put some changes in place to reduce your brain fog. If you aren’t sleeping, or you feel stressed from your work or home environment, then this also becomes your ‘perfect storm’ for brain fog as you navigate your biological ageing.
“I felt that I couldn’t function when I was in the boardroom. I really thought that I was getting dementia” she explained . “I’ve been a lawyer for 20 years but when I reached my early 50’s (I’m 53 now), I found that I was forgetting things and not sleeping was the worst. I bought so many supplements but became concerned about the hundreds of dollars I was spending on them each month. Nothing was shifting for me until I did your programme.” (Beth, Melbourne, Australia).
I never gave brain-fog a thought when I headed into my early 50’s. But it affected me hugely, especially when I had a lot of ‘stuff’ going through my brain – from my busy work environment, to studying for my PhD, to rushing around getting everything done to keep the home and family firing on all cylinders, it wasn’t until I kept forgetting things (including the pot of rice on the stove), that I wondered what was going on.
As we lose oestrogen, our nervous system is ageing. So too is our brain. As such, the part of the brain which controls memory is affected as we move into post-menopause. You can see the difference in these brain scans on pre-menopausal versus post-menopausal women out of Cornell University. Oh yes, indeed, the loss of oestrogen during menopause really does trigger changes in the brain.
The brain is an important target organ for oestrogen – [I must have missed the session on this important piece of information in my biology lessons at school]. In addition to direct effects, oestrogen influences brain function through effects on the vasculature (blood vessel network) and the immune system. [Henderson, 2008]. This is why, when oestrogen is lowering during our menopause transition, it’s no surprise that women like Beth above, have trouble focusing on high-level thinking and become forgetful. That’s a tough call when you’re a lawyer.
However, there’s a bit more to this brain-fog story too.
When we don’t sleep well in menopause, especially at the time of night when our memory is being consolidated (usually between 2-4am), we experience more brain fog than usual during the day. And yes, this was me as well.
BRAIN FOG is a ‘thing’. So too is muddling your words, feeling a bit dizzy, forgeting words and feeling a bit un-coordinated. This used to happen to me when I was doing my exercise step-classes. I felt as if I was going to trip up and fall over, so like many women who exercise, I had to stop doing these types of classes which I used to love.
When we feel as if we can’t remember the time of the day, or even the day, or where we have left our keys or our morning cuppa, it’s brain fog. The real definition is ‘forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating and thinking clearly.’ [McKeowen & Elves, 2000].
But it’s not just our changing levels of oestrogen that’s the culprit. Feeling forgetful is also affected by our changing levels of another brain hormone, called serotonin. Many of you will have heard of this hormone, because serotonin is a powerful mood hormone and the reason that millions of women get placed on anti-depressants in menopause, is because serotonin reduces in production during menopause too. This is why we need to focus on serotonin-boosting strategies as we go through menopause. This includes doing the type of exercise that is well evidenced to boost mood and motivation – aerobic exercise. Yes, a walk in the park, or a slow jog or some cycling or exercise to music, really does help to boost mood and improve brain fog. I’ve always said, ‘activity absorbs anxiety’ and this is important to note for all of us.
The Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN), a long-term investigation tracking the mental and physical health of more than 3,000 women going through the menopausal transition, concluded that ‘Brain-fog’ is caused by low oestrogen affecting the hippocampus – the region of the brain that controls memory. But it’s worse when we are feeling stressed, busy and overwhelmed.
Based on numerous studies, around 65% of women report memory issues as they go through menopause. So, don’t worry, you aren’t alone. But why we struggle so much with memory is because the part of the brain called the the hippocampus, is affected most. This region in the brain is critical in memory processing.
Thankfully, all is not lost … literally. There are numerous ways to reduce the effect of brain fog and I have all the strategies in both of the MyMT™ programmes.
1. Turning around your sleep and circadian rhythm. I can’t emphasise this enough. If you aren’t sleeping, then your brain isn’t healing and boosting your immune system and memory overnight. When we are exhausted, our serotonin levels drop and melatonin (our sleep hormone) fails to fire up to go high enough in the evening. This means that the quality of our sleep isn’t deep enough overnight, so our memory bank isn’t restoring properly as we sleep.
2. Regulating your blood sugar levels. Your brain needs glucose to function. Glucose is one of the only nutrients that crosses the blood-brain barrier and is the main source of energy for mammalian brains. Please don’t starve yourself throughout the day, because your brain fog may get worse. Your brain is so rich in nerve cells, or neurons, that it is the most energy-demanding organ, using one-half of all the glucose energy in the body. It also needs healthy Omega 3 fats. There’s a reason we need fruits and vegetables … and the beautiful olive oil I promote as part of the modified Mediterranean Diet I have for you in the MyMT™ Food Guide.
3. Slowing down your thoughts and trying to reduce multi-tasking. As busy, modern women, we have a lot going on in our lives. Many of us also work in roles that are very competitively based and/or are time-urgent. Whether it’s Beth the lawyer, or rushing around trying to get through all the jobs that you do in a day, or driving the kids to sports, if you added up everything you did in your day, you would be amazed. When we have a lot going on in our lives, we also have a lot going on in our brain. Sandra used to feel a lot of pressure in her male-oriented workplace. “I was always the one feeling I had to compete and do better than them” she said to me. “But then I began to understand that this was the source of my stress as well as always doing exercise that was competitively based, such as my Boot Camp. My entire day seemed to be undertaken at paced! I feel so much calmer now that I’ve done your programme.”
As busy working women, I know that we have a lot going on in our lives – yes, I do too. But when we are constantly high-level in our thinking and working, then the nerves in the brain become ‘hyper-excitable’. This increases anxiety, forgetfulness and eventually, inflammation too.
We already know the risk of Dementia in our parents generation with inflammation in the brain. As we lose oestrogen and when we aren’t sleeping well, our nerves become more ‘irritable’. They don’t send their messages properly. A bit like a really fast heart-rate not being able to deliver oxygen around to our muscles causing us to build up lactic acid which stops muscle performance. It’s the same thing going on in your brain cells. That’s why Magnesium is helpful as are foods that are high in potassium. Our ageing blood vessels and our nervous system need these minerals to function. So, make sure you get them in your diet – it’s what I have in the MyMT Food Guide for women on the programmes.
When I think about the times that I have had brain-fog, anxiety and poor sleep as I was coming through menopause, I felt so frustrated and hopeless. Has this happened to you too?
Don’t forget too, that we are also the first generation of women to be working in front of computers for long hours at a time, so eye strain and mental strain become ‘normalised’ in our day-to-day comings and goings, but we tend not to focus on how this affects us during our menopause transition. This increases our ‘brain fatigue’ as well and over time, we just feel more and more worn out. Eventually we wake up in the morning, without the energy to face our day. Don’t you think it’s time to change that?
Not all women end up on struggle-street during menopause, but there are thousands who do and I was one of them. I knew that there had to be a better way through our menopause transition without having to resort to hormonal medications and endless supplements that seem to work for a while, but then stop working. That’s why, I looked into this life stage and applied lifestyle science to it.
As part of my doctoral studies into women’s healthy ageing and the menopause transition, I have used my extensive background in fitness, nutrition, sports science and health and behaviour-change education, to un-pack our symptoms and align them up against specific lifestyle strategies that you put into action with my support. MyMT™ has two programmes – one for women who aren’t overweight (called ‘Circuit-Breaker’) and one for women who are overweight or putting on harmful belly fat (called ‘Transform Me‘). Both are getting outstanding results and I hope that you can check out the many success stories on the website by clicking here.
During the past few months, both of these programmes have been on sale for you with NZ$50 off. This is my way of supporting you at a time when the world is still in pandemic chaos. This makes the 12 week programmes and my coaching only NZ$249/ AUS $234/ £128 (instead of NZ$299). All you do is apple the promo code ATHOME20 to access your savings. You can also select the monthly payment option as well.
If you are struggling to make sense of how to look after yourself as you transition into the next phase of your life, then I hope you can visit the programme details and then join me where-ever you are in the world. You’ll be amazed at what you will learn.
Dr Wendy Sweet [PhD], Women’s Healthy Ageing Researcher & MyMT™ Founder & Coach; Member: Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine.
- Henderson, V. (2008). Cognitive changes after Menopause: Influence of Estrogen. Clin. Obstet. Gynecol. 51(3), 618-626.
- McKay, S. (2018). The Women’s Brain Book: The neuroscience of health, hormnes and happiness. Hatchett Press, Australia.
- McKeowen & Elves (2000). Estrogen actions in the central nervous system. Endocrine Reviews, 20(3), 279-307.
- Mergenthalor, P., Lindauer,U. et al. (2014). Sugar for the brain: the role of glucose in physiological and pathological brain function. Trends Neurosci., 36(10), 587 – 597.