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Menopause can have many adverse health effects on the body and on the mind. In some women, it can cause such a decline in cognitive function that they experience what is known as “mental fog” or “brain fog.”
When you suffer from mental fog, you are often irritable, you experience mood swings and emotional upset, and you find yourself forgetting things. You may even begin to worry that you are suffering from dementia!
Fortunately, these symptoms, including memory loss and mood swings do not mean you are more likely to come down with dementia at a later point in your life. In most cases, once you go through menopause, the brain fog lifts and you feel normal again.
The average age of menopause is 51. However, normal menopause can occur as early as age 40 or as late as age 59. It is defined as having a cessation of any type of menstrual bleeding for 12 consecutive months.
Prior to that time, you may have irregular periods associated with other symptoms besides brain fog, including hot flashes, night sweats, irritability, loss of libido, and vaginal dryness.
Brain fog is usually the result of declining hormones normally produced by the ovaries. Progesterone is usually the first hormone the ovaries start to fall back on. Low levels of progesterone are linked to irritability, mood swings, and brain fog. Progesterone is usually a calming hormone so, without it, you often experience a lack of sleep, which contributes to daytime brain fog.
Testosterone levels are the next to go. Without testosterone, you can feel a decrease in libido and symptoms of depression. The adrenal glands and the ovaries still make some testosterone but the amount it makes is much less than before menopause.
The last hormone to decline in menopause is estrogen. A lack of estrogen can lead to poor energy levels, headaches, mood swings, dizziness, depressive symptoms, and mental confusion. This is usually when most menopausal women feel at their worst because the physical symptoms are especially associated with estrogen loss, including hot flashes, night sweats, and vaginal dryness.
The Role of Estrogen in the Brain
Estrogen is an important aspect of the signaling system of the brain and helps augment attention, language abilities, memory, mood, and other processes normally accomplished by the brain. This is why brain fog occurs during menopause because the brain no longer has estrogen to fill up its estrogen receptors.
Researchers have shown that hormone replacement therapy has a positive impact on brain activity, while other studies have found that replacing estrogen does nothing to help the brain or that it can make cognitive function worse.
Clearly more research needs to be done to identify whether or not replacing estrogen has an impact on the brain’s cognitive function.
Estrogen has also been found to elevate the levels of acetylcholine in the brain. Acetylcholine is a brain neurotransmitter that causes an increase in the blood flow to the brain’s tissue. A lack of estrogen means a lack of acetylcholine, which in turn may mean the blood flow to the brain is disrupted, leading to brain fog.
Defending yourself against Brain Fog
While it may be unclear, as to why menopause leads to brain fog, there are some things you can do to take care of your brain during this sensitive time. For example, stress reduction may be important in preventing mental fog associated with menopause.
Stress can cause an imbalance of the major reproductive hormones, namely estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone. It can also cause an increase in the levels of cortisol, which affects your ability to sleep. A lack of sleep can lead to mental fog during the day.
According to the author of The Wisdom of Menopause, there are ways to protect the brain against brain fog that do not require hormonal therapy. This includes eating a healthy diet that is high in antioxidants, which scavenge for oxygen free radicals that can cause damage to delicate brain cells.
In addition to eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, you also need to stop smoking, decrease alcohol consumption, and limit the amount of sugar and no calorie sweeteners like aspartame in the diet.
Supplementation with pregnenolone can also be helpful. Pregnenolone is the precursor hormone to several neurotransmitters in the brain and is a major building block for other hormones of the body, such as estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and DHEA.
Pregnenolone, when taken in supplement form can increase mood, decrease problems with sleep, improve cognitive function, and maximize memory, decrease stress, and control inflammation in the body. Talk to your doctor before starting pregnenolone supplementation to see if it is right for you to take it.