Apart from night sweats, sleep issues, mood swings and hot flushes, brain fog is one of the most common menopausal symptoms. In fact, around two-thirds of women experience memory and brain function issues in one form or another. In a UK parliamentary survey 75% of working women surveyed said they had problems with concentration and memory in work.
So, what exactly causes issues with cognitive function when women enter the menopausal transition and how can you support brain health? Can hormone therapy turn back the clock? What about the mediterranean diet, isn't oily fish good for your brain?
We’ve rounded up all of the answers about 'menopause brain' in this article. Let’s get straight into it.
What is Menopause Brain Fog?
A woman is in menopause when she is past her final menstrual period and up to twelve months after it.
When a woman has been without her periods for 12 months she is considered post menopausal. She will still experience menopause symptoms which can include hot flushes, decreased energy, mood swings and sleep problems. Other symptoms are vaginal dryness, weight gain, night sweats and an increased risk of heart disease.
You might have also heard brain fog described by middle aged women as mental fatigue or that the brain feels like it's made of cotton wool. Changes in brain function can start in perimenopause – which is the period leading up to menopause.
Many women put their memory loss down to stress when in fact it’s probably the early stages of hormone decline when their hormone levels are no longer reliable, ovarian oestrogen levels starting to fluctuate and periods become less regular.
Brain fog is the name given to many of the cognitive – brain health or brain function – symptoms of menopause, including
- The inability to think clearly
- Memory loss and memory issues
- Becoming easily distracted
- Difficulty concentrating
- Verbal memory problems
Experiencing brain fog
Menopause has an enormous effect on a woman's mental health and wellbeing when normal brain function starts to go awry. Depending on the severity of your brain fog, it can interfere with your daily life. The cognitive impairment means you might forget what you’re trying to say halfway through sentences, zone out during important work meetings, struggle to recall names of people you know well, or walk into a room and forget why you’re there.
Sometimes, brain function, specifically verbal memory (the memory of words and language) can be so severe that you begin to fear that it’s a sign of early-onset dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
The good news is it’s extremely common – many women suffer from brain fog, and if you’re aged between 45 and 55, it’s far more likely to be related to the menopause transition than anything more sinister.
What causes menopausal brain fog?
You may have experienced period brain fog in the past. Being more forgetful during menstruation, and in menopause brain fog happens for the same reason – changes in hormone levels. Oestrogen, testosterone and progesterone levels start to become less stable in perimenopause and continue to fall throughout menopause ( unless you're a woman on hormone replacement therapy)
These hormonal fluctuations and imbalances change the way your brain functions, making it harder to remember, process and retain information.
Low oestrogen levels affect cognitive function
Oestrogen stimulates serotonin which balances a woman's anxiety levels.It also is key when it comes to endorphins - your 'feel good' chemicals.
The decline in oestrogen can cause other cognitive changes including hot flashes and mental confusion. This is because the hormone oestrogen stimulates the brain, helping new brain cells to grow and existing ones to form new connections. So, once levels drop, your brain goes into a state of deprivation.
Sleep disturbances in menopause
Progesterone is a natural sedative which helps us to relax, rest and sleep. When progesterone starts disappearing the body responds by releasing more cortisol and adrenaline which then increases irritability, anxiety and sleep disturbances.
Testosterone gives a woman more energy, motivation - her 'get up and go'.
To make things worse, some of the other menopause symptoms, like trouble sleeping and hot flashes, can also contribute towards worsening brain fog and cognitive issues – after all, we all struggle to concentrate when we’re tired.
What can you do to help brain fog?
So, you might be wondering if there’s anything you can do to make symptoms of menopause like brain fog and poor memory better, or stop the cognitive decline altogether? The good news is that herbal supplements, dietary changes and lifestyle changes can be really, really effective. Here are just some of the things you can do.
Regular exercise to boost brain cell performance
Exercising regularly can help keep brain fog at bay. Studies have repeatedly shown physically active people have a lower risk of a decline in cognitive skills as they age. Women should aim for around 75 to 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each week. That could include brisk walks, short jogs or home workouts. If you don’t already exercise, start by incorporating small chunks of activity into each day, then gradually build it up. A
Eat a mediterranean diet
Eating a healthy diet is really important for women's health, especially during menopause. By fuelling your body with the right foods, you’ll be equipping yourself to support the body better through hormonal upheaval and help to fight off unwanted symptoms, including brain fog.
A mediterranean diet with fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, oily fish, whole grains and pulses and good fat to maximise nutrients is a good place to start. Omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, are linked to maintenance of thinking skills. Vitamin D receptors are present throughout the brain and help to maintain cognitive function, reducing the risk of neurodegenerative diseases.
Eve Biology menopause meal replacements for women are packed with brain boosting B vitamins to support cognitive health and the production of neurotransmitters which help to regulate mood and manage anxiety.Find out more about ingredients here.
Prioritise quality sleep
Brain fog can feel worse if you’re lacking sleep, and unfortunately, trouble sleeping is another common symptom of menopause. To try to get your sleeping pattern back on track, it’s a good idea to set regular bedtimes and wake-up times. Reducing your caffeine intake can help, as well. And, try to avoid looking at your phone for too long right before you go to sleep.
A 2023 study found that middle aged people need sleep to see the mental benefits of exercise. Researchers found people in their 50's and 60's who exercised regularly but slept less than six hours a night had a faster decline in memory and thinking skills.
Learn new things to stimulate your brain
Learning something new is a great way to fight off brain fog and memory problems , as it keeps your brain active and engaged. So, if you’re going through menopause, now could be a great time to try a new hobby, like playing a musical instrument, learning a new language, or reading about a topic that interests you. Even just playing puzzles like crosswords and sudoku can make a difference to memory loss.
Practising mindfulness can help combat stress, which in turn, will help in the battle against brain fog. There are lots of different ways to do this. Some people enjoy yoga, while others prefer to just take some time out to do activities they enjoy. You could even just set aside some dedicated me-time each day, whether it’s to take a hot bath, do some deep breathing exercises, cosy up with a cup of tea, or read a book.
Ginkgo Biloba Supplements
You might be wondering if there are vitamins for brain fog. The good news is that there are supplements and minerals that can help.
Ginkgo biloba is a popular herbal supplement that’s been used in Chinese medicine for thousands of years. It can be helpful in combating menopause brain fog – particularly when it comes to forgetfulness. As a powerful antioxidant, it can work quite quickly to improve your short-term memory and overall cognitive functioning.
You can also try adding iron and magnesium supplements into your daily routine – the former boosts your energy levels, while the latter replaces iron lost through longer, heavier or more frequent periods. However, you should always talk to your doctor before taking supplements.
The bottom line
Around two-thirds of women experience some form of menopausal brain fog. This includes changes to memory and brain function, verbal memory and verbal learning so it’s likely that you will experience it, too.
However, it helps to remember that brain fog is caused by hormonal changes, so just like other unwanted menopause symptoms, it won’t last forever. Postmenopausal women no longer have to deal with huge changes in hormones and adapt to living with lower oestrogen levels.
Moderate intensity exercise, eating a mediterranean diet with oily fish and whole grains, keeping your brain engaged, getting plenty of sleep and practising mindfulness can all help relieve stress. A healthy lifestyle will stand you in good stead when it comes to declining brain function.