A foggy brain week


Last week I was visiting my parents in Dublin. An attack of brain fog set in that had me forgetting bags, leaving shoes behind at the gym, falling on my face in the middle of a main road because I wasn’t concentrating, and almost spending 450 euros on new flights as I couldn’t find the confirmation email for the ones I thought I had booked months ago. There was a LOT of zoning out during conversations and losing track of what I was talking about – to such an extent that when I met my friend for dinner one evening I had to warn her what was going on and that if she noticed me not focusing, it was just brain fog, not any profound disinterest in our conversation. Luckily, she’s also 52 and can totally relate:). 

In fact, she suggested I write about the topic, so here we are.

When this whole menopause experience started for me in January 2020, just after I turned 50, I had no clue what was going on. I had had a hysterectomy in 2011 so I had no way of knowing, other than symptoms and intuition, when menopause kicked in as I no longer got my period after the operation (yay!!!). 

Somehow nobody had told me what could happen once the time for menopause came. As far as I remember, before the operation, all I was told that I might “enter menopause” a little earlier than usual. Not a word about hormones, cognitive and emotional challenges, changing worlds etc., you know, all that non-important stuff…

So in 2020, when anxiety attacks set in and my world was thrown into disarray, I didn’t even have menopause on my radar. 

Back then, once I realised what was happening to me, I set out to find out all I could and am now on a mission to share some of what I’ve learned with as many people as possible:).

These days, I don’t panic about things like brain fog anymore because I know what’s going on and that it’s temporary. But it can be super scary if we’re unprepared. Many women really do feel like they have early onset dementia, and that’s because we’re not educated or informed about what’s going on during this phase of our lives.

So what exactly is brain fog?

Menopausal brain fog refers to cognitive changes or difficulties experienced by some women during menopause. It often involves memory lapses, trouble concentrating, and a general feeling of cloudiness or lack of mental clarity. It can feel unfamiliar and disconcerting if we don’t know recognise what it is. 

Why does it happen?

The exact cause of menopausal brain fog isn’t fully understood, but it’s likely linked to hormonal changes that occur during the menopausal transition, specifically a decrease in oestrogen levels. Oestrogen plays a significant role in cognitive function. When levels decline during menopause, it can affect brain functions like memory, attention, and processing speed. Stress and sleep disruption, which are common during menopause, may also contribute to the experience of brain fog.

What can we do about it?

We can take several steps to manage brain fog. 

We can support cognitive function by maintaining a healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise, a balanced diet, cutting down on alcohol and good sleep hygiene (I know, eye-roll, blah, “healthy lifestyle”, we’ve heard all this before) but it really can help. Even small changes like starting to move a little bit more each day and building from there is helpful. 

Mind-challenging activities such as puzzles, reading, or learning a new skill can help keep our brains active.

Stress management techniques like mindfulness and meditation can also help. Just getting a meditation app like Insight Timer or Headspace and carving out 15 to 20 minutes each day to do one can have an effect. I’ve also found rest and daytime napping to be very helpful. Life can be very busy but especially during this period of change and transition, we owe it to ourselves to try to take a step back and claim the time we need to make sure we feel well in the world.

We can talk to our healthcare professionals about Hormone Replacement Therapy options to decide whether to go down that route.

And finally: Communication, communication, communication! The people around us need to know what’s going on, why we’re suddenly experiencing new things and changing, sometimes quite radically. They can’t support us if they have no sense of our current experience of the world. We can explain to them what brain fog is (see above) and then, when we have a foggy day, we can simply say something like “Hey, I’m having some brain fog today, so if I seem a bit off, that’s what’s happening. I can’t really think very well, I might get irritable and need you to help me with some things”. Then you’ve made it clear what’s going on and hopefully your loved ones will be able to adapt. Believe me, that is SO much easier than keeping it all in and suffering in silence or lashing out.

Every woman experiences this life phase in her own way, so there’s no one size fits all solution. But a healthy lifestyle based on a good diet (more on what that means during this life phase in a future newsletter), movement and mindfulness practice, understanding what our HRT options are and, last but not least, talking with the people we love about what’s going on with us, can help us all to manage it as well as possible.

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