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, many of us have experienced brain fog as we move through menopause. Perhaps your brain fog and fatigue have become worse since you’ve had your vaccination? Brain-fog is now a known symptom that people experience as they recover from the virus. But putting this aside, 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 hormone levels change in menopause, our body is ageing. So too is our brain. This means that there are changes occuring 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.
With menopause becoming a hot topic in many media outlets over the past month or so, especially up there in the UK, it’s time to understand what’s really going on and then put some lifestyle 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.
Brain-fog is a subjective term. It’s given that name because this is how women feel – it’s like a thickness in their head that they can’t resolve and in most cases, it means that we become forgetful. The impairment is not fully understood and often is described as slow thinking, difficulty focusing, confusion, lack of concentration, forgetfulness, or a haziness in thought processes. Interestingly for all of you who feel exhausted all the time, it’s a known symptom of chronic fatigue syndrome. [Ocon, 2013]. And for women in the workplace, brain fog can be debilitating.
“I felt that I couldn’t function when I was in the boardroom. I really thought that I was getting dementia” Beth 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 goin going on in my life – 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. But as oestrogen levels decline, 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 though 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. 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.
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 may 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 production decreases during menopause, especially for those of you who have altered gut health.
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, or as many women on my programmes discover, hiking is great 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 you aren’t alone. But why we struggle so much with memory is because the part of the brain called the hippocampus, is affected most. This region in the brain is critical in memory processing.
There are numerous ways to reduce the effect of brain fog and I have all the strategies in both of the MyMT™ programmes.
- 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.
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. However, 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.
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 pace! I feel so much calmer now that I’ve done your programme.”
4. Increase magnesium-rich foods as well as your B-vitamins. 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 and Vitamin B-rich foods. 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 12 week programmes.
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.
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 continues to be in chaos. This makes the 12 week programmes and my coaching only NZ$249/ AUS $234/ £130 (instead of NZ$299/ £155). All you do is apply the promo code ATHOME22 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.
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, hormones 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.
Ocon, A. (2013). Caught in the thickness of brain fog: Exploring the cognitive symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome. Frontiers in Physiology, 4(63), 1-8.