If you're a woman over 40, you may have noticed moments where your mind doesn't seem as sharp as it used to be.
This experience, often described as 'brain fog', is not a normal sign of aging - but a common symptom of menopause, affecting about 60% of women in this transition.
What Does Brain Fog Feel Like?
Brain fog can feel like you're walking through a haze. You might experience:
Memory glitches: Forgetting where you put your keys or missing appointments can become frequent. It's often the short-term memory that's affected, while your long-term memory stays intact.
Difficulty to focus: Concentrating on tasks or maintaining focus might become challenging, especially when you're juggling professional responsibilities or personal commitments.
Slower mental processing: You might find yourself taking a bit longer to respond or struggling with tasks that once felt automatic.
Trouble finding your words: Occasionally, the right words might elude you, which can be maddening.
While these experiences vary greatly among women, they're very common - and might feel alarming if you don't understand what is happening. So, let's have a look at that.
Why Does It Happen?
The primary culprit behind brain fog is hormonal changes, especially the decline in oestrogen, crucial for brain health. Oestrogen has a protective effect on brain function, including cognition, and lower levels in menopause may contribute to brain fog.
But there's more to it. Other actors in the brain fog saga include poor sleep, stress and mood changes – all of which are often exacerbated by the hormonal changes of menopause. Cognition may also be influenced by medical conditions and medication side effects.
While inflammation and toxic exposure may not seem directly linked to the menopausal transition, they can have an effect on cognitive health.
Chronic inflammation (caused by chronic stress, poor diet, infection, toxic exposure, etc.) triggers an immune response in the brain, which disrupts normal brain function and communication between cells. Inflammation also causes oxidative stress and damage to brain cells, worsening cognitive symptoms.
Toxins can leave deposits in the brain that interfere with neuronal functions. They can also increase oxidative stress, triggering inflammation. Some toxins behave as ‘xenoestrogens’, mimicking the chemical structure of oestrogen and disrupting hormone function.
Differentiating Brain Fog from Dementia
It's important to distinguish between menopausal brain fog and more serious cognitive issues like dementia. While brain fog is about cognitive changes, dementia significantly impacts daily functioning. If you're concerned about major cognitive shifts, it's wise to consult a healthcare professional.
While menopause can increase certain dementia risk factors, these can often be mitigated through dietary and lifestyle adjustments.
Intersecting Challenges: (Peri)Menopause + ADHD
While distinct, menopausal brain fog and inattention in ADHD can intersect.
Menopausal brain fog is primarily linked to hormonal changes, affecting cognitive functions like memory and mental processing. Typically, this form of cognitive impairment is associated with the stages of menopause and can fluctuate over time.
ADHD, on the other hand, is a neurodevelopmental condition characterised by chronic patterns of inattention and often impulsivity and/or hyperactivity.
Research suggests that women with ADHD are more sensitive to hormonal fluctuations (Dorani et al., J Psychiatr Res, 2021).
This increased sensitivity means that during (peri)menopause, these women might experience a 'double-whammy' effect. The hormonal shifts of menopause can exacerbate their ADHD symptoms, intensifying challenges such as inattention.
(Stay tuned: this is the subject of my thesis, which I'm working on now. I plan to share a whole lot more on this very interesting topic in the coming months!)
Strategies for Sharper Brain Function in Menopause
Improving cognition during menopause involves a multifaceted approach, ideally including dietary and lifestyle modifications. Below are some general strategies to consider.
Eat for Your Brain
The brain is a hungry organ which thrives on a diet rich in vitamins and minerals. This includes consuming a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats.
Your brain loves anti-inflammatory foods such as berries, nuts, seeds and oily fish. Reduce processed foods, sugars and simple carbohydrates.
Keep yourself hydrated and consume healthy fats to support brain structure and neural signalling.
Ensure adequate intake of vitamins C, D, and E, magnesium, iron, taurine and choline.
Move your butt: Exercise not only improves overall health but also has a direct positive impact on cognitive function.
Prioritise quality sleep: Establish a regular sleep routine and reducing screen time before bed to optimise sleep quality.
Managing stress is key, as chronic stress can adversely affect cognitive health. Try meditation, yoga, hugging your child or your pet - whatever works for you.
Minimise exposure to potential neurotoxins found in heavy metals, pesticides and plastics.
While these general strategies are beneficial, it's important to remember that each woman's needs are unique, especially during menopause.
A nutritional therapist can provide recommendations tailored to your specific health profile, dietary preferences and lifestyle. They can guide you on the appropriate use of supplements, if necessary, and help you navigate through the various options to find what works best for you.
Let's take good care of our (peri)menopausal brains, so it can take good care of us.