Menopause awareness month: support for cognition and mood
October is World Menopause Awareness Month, which has been in place since 2009 when the International Menopause Society (IMS) and World Health Organization (WHO) collaborated to create it, alongside World Menopause Day, which is celebrated on the 18th of October. According to the IMS, the purpose of the day is to raise awareness of the menopause as well as the support options available for improving health and well-being.
In recent years, the menopause has gone mainstream, which is brilliant after the deafening silence and taboo that has surrounded it for far too long. We are all for raising awareness of the menopause as well as sharing top nutrition and lifestyle tips for a smoother time both pre- and post-menopause.
In this blog, we will help you understand the menopause better with a specific focus on brain fog, cognition and mood, which is the theme for this years World Menopause Day.
What exactly IS the menopause?
Menopause is a major life event that marks the end of the reproductive life cycle for a woman, where the ovaries no longer produce eggs, resulting in levels of the hormones oestrogen, progesterone and testosterone falling.
Many women may experience troublesome symptoms related to the menopause for a number of years, which can have a detrimental impact on their quality of life, physical and mental wellbeing, and a significant impact on their personal and professional relationships.
The menopause is achieved after going 12 consecutive months without a period. From this day forward, a woman is in post-menopause. The average age to achieve menopause is 51, however it can also occur occur earlier either naturally or as a result of surgery such as a hysterectomy, or as a result of radiotherapy.
Research conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), led by YouGov, found that nearly a third of women had taken sick leave because of their symptoms. They also found that almost 60% of the 1,409 women surveyed between the ages of 45 and 55 experiencing symptoms say it has a negative impact on their daily lives.
These are significant statistics and we want to help support as many women as possible by sharing some top tips for menopause support, specifically for brain fog, mood, cognitive decline.
What is brain fog?
Brain fog is a somewhat under-appreciated symptom of the menopause but 60% of women suffer with it during their 40s in the lead up to menopause (perimenopause) and post-menopause. It is an umbrella term that encompasses symptoms such as forgetfulness or a completely blank mind suddenly, loss of train of thought and difficulty concentrating. It can be worse at specific times or occasions, for example, a particularly stressful situation or when deprived of sleep.
Brain fog can really impact a woman’s confidence and sense of self. Women who were once confident in public speaking or hosting meetings at work may want to retreat into themselves for fear of embarrassment in public if brain fog were to occur at the wrong time. Some women even start to worry that they are displaying early signs of dementia.
Oestrogen supports the energy system of the brain, which allows glucose to get into brain cells more efficiently, which prevents brain fog, therefore the decline in oestrogen during menopause and into menopause can result in less energy for the brain and thus brain fog. Studies also show that increased cortisol, the stress hormone, can increase brain fog and related symptoms.
Post-menopause, women continue to make a small amount of oestrogen from the adrenal glands, about 10% of what they used to make, therefore stress management should be a key focus during perimenopause and post-menopause, as the adrenal glands are responsible for making cortisol in response to stress!
Cognition, Memory and Mood
Women commonly report memory or cognition changes associated with the menopause transition and menopause. Symptoms can show up as issues with working memory, attention, reduced processing speed, and reduced verbal memory.
The loss of progesterone and oestrogen during both the perimenopause years and post-menopause can result in cognitive changes for many women. Here’s why.
Progesterone is a brain-protective hormone which means it’s important for cognition, memory and mood. During the reproductive (cycling) years, progesterone helps to calm the nerve cells in the brain by promoting a molecule called Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which supports cognition, memory and learning.
Oestrogen boosts the ‘happy chemical’ serotonin and so the lower levels of oestrogen during perimenopause and post-menopause can result in less serotonin being made, which can impact mood.
Increases in cortisol has also been shown to impact cognition, memory, mood and sleep during perimenopause and post-menopause. Yet another reason why stress management should be a key focus during perimenopause and post-menopause!
What about anxiety?
Another lesser known aspect of menopause is anxiety and reduced resilience in situations that didn’t bother the person previously. Research for the recent Davina McCall documentary on Channel 4 called The Menopause and the Mind, found that out of more than 4,000 women, anxiety was one of the most common symptoms in over 60% of the women.
As oestrogen levels fluctuate during the perimenopause oestrogen rollercoaster and subsequent halt of oestrogen production by the ovaries at menopause, levels of serotonin in the brain drop and cortisol levels rise, creating feelings of anxiety, panic, vulnerability andf feeling less able to cope.
The good news is that there are various diet and lifestyle habits that can make a significant difference to these symptoms and help you have a much smoother ride!
Here are our 3 TOP TIPS for help with brain fog, cognition and mood issues before, during and post menopause!
1) Eat a blood sugar balancing diet
Your diet determines how effective your brain and body cells are at taking in glucose (sugar) from your bloodstream in response to a meal. Something that’s really key at menopause is helping the cells in your body and brain to be ‘sensitive’ to the hormone insulin, which allows glucose to get into your cells more efficiently and reduce episodes of brain fog and cognition and memory issues. Protein is the first place to start! Eat protein with EVERY meal (and snack if having) and aim for at least 30g of pure protein per 3 meals. Go for fish, chicken, turkey, grass fed and organic red meat (where budget allows), eggs, non GMO tofu and tempeh, nuts and seeds, quinoa, beans and lentils.
Another important principle of a blood sugar-balancing diet is to eat carbohydrates that break down slowly into glucose, also known as ‘complex’ carbohydrates. These foods provide a nice steady drip feed of sugar into your bloodstream and lesser amounts than refined, white flour carbohydrates do, which helps to prevent insulin ‘resistance’ and less energy to the brain.
2) Manage stress
The adrenal glands take over once the ovaries have retired! As already mentioned, the adrenal glands will only produce a small amount of a weaker form of oestrogen however every little helps. So, now is the time to focus on self care and stress management. This doesn't mean you have to retire too, it simply means it’s time to put yourself FIRST, say ‘no’ more often and ask for help and support where needed to help reduce your overall stress load and responsibilities. It’s time to have more fun, experience more joy and cultivate more happiness for yourself. The people around you will benefit too so this ISN’T a selfless act! If you are chronically stressed, busy and burned out then your adrenal glands are working overtime to produce the stress hormone cortisol. Studies show that elevations in cortisol has an impact on almost all menopause symptoms, especially brain fog, cognition issues and mood.
Some great ways to support your body with stress and reduce your stress hormone output include gentle yoga including Yin yoga and Restorative yoga, meditation, simple breathing exercises such as the 4:6 and 4-7-8 techniques, walks in nature, Tai Chi or Qi Gong, creative hobbies, laughter, hugs with pets and people, and a robust evening wind-down routine to support better sleep.
3) Build muscle
This one is SO important. After age 30 the human body loses about 3-10% of muscle mass every 10 years. Over the years this amounts to a lot of muscle lost. Muscle mass has been shown to be brain-protective and the key way to build more muscle and maintain it is through strength training.
Strength training has been shown to promote ‘Neurogenesis’, which is the making of new brain cells, which is important for improving memory and learning and preventing cognitive decline. Building muscle also improves metabolism, insulin sensitivty and strengthens your bones, which reduces risk of osteoporosis post-menopause.
Take care with too much cardio and HIIT now as these can lead to elevations in cortisol and the further breakdown of muscle tissue - not good! Instead, switch your focus to exercise that builds muscle whilst having a minimal impact on cortisol and that’s strength training aka lifting weights!
The transition into menopause and post-menopause life doesn't have to be a negative experience. With the right information and guidance there is a lot you can do to improve your experience. We hope this information and these 3 simple tips have been helpful for you and provided you with some actionable steps you can start to take straight away and continue to build on.