So last night I was making lasagne for tea. I had been planning something else but had forgotten to take meat out of the freezer for it. I knew when I did the food shopping on Friday that my head wasn’t in it. Firstly I realised I didn’t have any cottage cheese for the sauce (for anyone that doesn’t use it in a lasagne white sauce this is a tip I pinched from a friend who is an amazing cook). So I thought I’ll cook the tomato sauce and whilst this is simmering I’ll nip to the garage and get some cottage cheese. I needed to fill up with petrol anyway.
Twenty-five mins later I was making the white sauce and ready to assemble the lasagne. It was then I realised I didn’t have enough lasagne pasta! Another shopping mishap. I decided we’d just manage without the top layer of pasta, assembled it and it didn’t look too bad. I normally cook it with foil over the top for the first 20 minutes – guess what? No foil! I fashioned a cover with a baking tray and put it in the oven thinking 40 minutes later we’ll have something that resembles lasagne.
Now, you know that cottage cheese I mentioned – there it was sitting on the side, unopened! I felt a completely useless – my ability to do something I used to find easy seemed to have left me again!
So why am I sharing my culinary disaster with you? Well this is not me normally. Normally I can make lasagne whilst checking maths homework, testing spellings and writing my to do list for the coming week. I’ve always prided myself on being able to get lots done at the same time. But oh menopause brain, I feel like you’ve robbed me of my super power!
The Science – kind of …
We’ve all heard the term baby brain – that period of 6 weeks (or a lot longer) after having a baby that disappear in a blur. Hormones all over the place, lack of sleep and a new little person relying on you for everything. But is menopause brain a real thing? Umm, hormones all over the place, lack of sleep and lots of people depending on you for lots of things – see where I’m going with this.
A lot of women notice cognitive changes during menopause that leave them feeling “fuzzy,” a little (or a lot) less sharp than they used to be. For many women, these are troubling changes. They wonder—and worry about—where it will end.
It’s not entirely clear why these symptoms arise during menopause. Several studies have been done to test whether hormonal changes—especially oestrogen loss—are behind the brain fog. Many GPs believe that balancing hormones with hormone replacement therapy will help prevent such cognitive changes and many women report improved cognition from taking HRT. But so far, results have varied widely. Some studies have concluded that oestrogen replacement therapy improves memory and other aspects of cognition, but other studies of equal merit suggest it has no effect or even a negative effect on cognitive faculties. To date, no clear picture has emerged.
Many scientists now believe that the mental fuzziness in menopause is not just about hormones. It’s not that hormone levels affect cognitive faculties directly. Instead, they believe hormones cause other symptoms of menopause, such as mood swings and poor sleep. These symptoms in turn impact memory and other cognitive functions. To me this makes sense – oestrogen is known to affect brain chemicals essential for regulating both mood and sleep, and inconsistent moods and sleep are both associated with memory problems. This is why tackling mood and sleep can have such a positive impact on your brain fog.
We also need to consider that as we all age, certain cognitive abilities gradually weaken. Our neurons don’t fire quite as quickly as they once did. This slowing is really small but it can make a big difference to memory, thinking, and focus. Menopause has an interesting relation to this normal age-related cognitive decline. Before menopause, men decline at a faster rate than women. But during menopause, women catch up. Postmenopausal women show an average rate of decline that matches that of men. So while the cognitive changes a woman senses during menopause may be just a part of normal ageing, they may feel accelerated.
Of course, we all have different experiences. Science results deal in averages, not individuals—and as such their results may not apply to you. And the role of hormones like oestrogen in the brain is very complicated, and sometimes contradictory. For instance, oestrogen affects both serotonin and beta-endorphin levels … one of which should improve mood and the other which should worsen mood.
The most important thing to take away is that it’s normal to feel like your brain isn’t at its best during menopause, and the most extreme moments of brain fog are probably temporary. Scientists aren’t exactly sure what’s going on. This is another example of how the menopausal brain is quite understudied given that half of the population is likely to experience it.
What can we do?
It’s important we don’t just accept that we can’t do anything about it. Whether our brain changes result from menopause or if they’re part of normal ageing, there are several ways to improve brain performance
- Regular brain-training exercise
- Eating brain-healthy foods
- Regular exercise
- Spending time with friends and family
- Learning new things
As you can see, we come back time and time again to how we look after ourselves. Keep reminding yourself you are important and your health and well-being deserves your time. If you still feel concerned about your cognitive function and memory, have a chat with your GP, they’ll be able to guide you on understanding what is going on with you. Don’t feel like you’re on your own. This is a normal if somewhat frustrating part of the menopause.
Tonight I’m cooking fish – simple and easy, no ingredients forgotten and maybe some brain-cells restored!
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