by Katherine O’Neil, Nutritional Therapist
During peri-menopause your brain goes through a process of reorganising and adapting much like it did during puberty and you may experience some changes in cognitive function, such as poor memory and brain fog etc but the good news is there is lots of things you can do to support your brain health through menopause. So, let’s dive in and find out what actually happens.
Menopausal symptoms e.g. mood changes, cognitive change, depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbances clearly show that the brain is the main culprit instead of the ovaries. The brain and female sex hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, are interlinked. These hormones are responsible for regulating brain function. This is the reason that glucose metabolism, nerve cell interaction, and morphology start changing when there is a decline in the production of oestrogen during menopause.
What happens to brain activity during Menopause?
A woman faces changes in the brain structure, energy metabolism, and neural connectivity depending on the stage of menopause she is undergoing. HPG axis, also known as the hypothalamus pituitary-gonadal axis, is responsible for the connection between the brain and the reproductive system. Think of the hypothalamus as the control centre which sends signals to the pituitary gland which in turn releases signals and hormones this system works on a negative feedback loop so the chat goes backwards and forwards constantly.
As oestrogen levels fluctuate physiologically, the hippocampus structure and function is affected. The hypothalamus controls body temperature think of it like your internal thermostat control. while our sleep and your wake cycle is controlled by the brainstem. If oestrogen fails to activate the hypothalamus appropriately, it will ultimately affect body temperature resulting in hot flashes. The same goes for the brainstem- women face sleep disturbances if estrogen fails to activate the brainstem properly. The Amygdala, also known as the memory center of the brain, is in charge of processing different emotions. When estrogen levels subside in the amygdala, it results in those crazy mood swings.
Impact of progesterone on the brain:
Aside from progesterone’s role in female reproductive health, its importance for brain health cannot be overlooked. It is a neurosteroid involved in neurogenesis and the protection of myelin sheath (This sheath protects your nerves). It promotes sound sleep which ultimately helps in uplifting mood and cognitive function. Progesterone in the body metabolizes to produce allopregnanolone that possesses neuroprotective, anxiolytic, and antidepressant effects.
The decline in progesterone during menopause triggers mood swings, sleep disturbances, cognitive decline, anxiety, and memory issues.
Menopause and brain fog
Brain fog affects women’s lives not only professionally and socially, but also emotionally. Having a foggy brain can leave a woman in a state of confusion and frustration, many women link their brains to cotton wool as they often forget important dates and find it difficult to concentrate while doing any task. Studies show that loss of verbal memory skills (being unable to find the right words) is associated with the extremity of hot flushes you may have. The women with severe hot flushes showed poor verbal memory performance. However, fluctuating hormonal levels are enough to cause memory decline even if no other menopausal symptoms are present.
During menopause and perimenopause, approximately 60 % of women suffer from brain fog. They suffer from memory decline, difficulty in concentration, and forgetfulness. Research shows that women suffer from more cognitive decline at the beginning of the onset of perimenopause. Many factors are involved in causing brain fog. Falling levels of progesterone trigger issues like mood swings, confusion, and brain fog. Oestrogen performs many functions for the brain. Besides regulating the growth of new cells, it also stimulates the blood flow in the brain and neuronal synapse activity. Brain energy levels also get impacted by a drop in oestrogen levels because it is the oestrogen that bumps the brain to utilize more glucose.
Menopause and Brain-derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF)
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is a neurotransmitter known for its role in maintaining and developing the central and peripheral nervous system. There is a strong association of BDNF with menopausal status. Postmenopausal women with reduced plasma BDNF levels have impaired memory performance and poor functional patterns.
It has been shown that peripheral serum levels of BDNF correlate with the extent of depression. Reduced synthesis of BDNF and any dysfunctionality may lead to depression and possibly Alzheimer’s disease. Furthermore, BDNF deficiency also results in hippocampus atrophy and neuronal loss as it plays an important role in neuroplasticity. So now we have all the facts lets go through all the amazing things you can do to support your brain. Your body has a great way of healing and keeping healthy if we give it the right tools to support it.
Tips to nurture your brain health:
I’m here to give you a complete guide so that you can maintain your brain health while going through menopause.
Eat healthy and nutritious food. Include plenty of colourful fruits and vegetables in your diet to protect your brain from free radical damage.
Follow a Mediterranean diet. It is considered as Brain friendly diet because it is rich in healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. An interesting aspect of this diet is that it contains foods that are loaded with phytoestrogens and plant oestrogens. Research shows that the people who followed the Mediterranean diet eating pattern showed lower levels of beta-amyloid deposits seen in cases of Alzheimer’s as compared to those who did not.
Include foods in your diet that are abundant in polyunsaturated fatty acids. PUFA’s include omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids that are found in eggs, nuts, sunflower seeds, flaxseeds, olive oil, and fish
Make sure that you are getting enough supply of vitamin D and calcium.
Consume probiotics and prebiotics e.g. yogurt and fermented foods to keep your gut healthy. According to research, your gut is the place where happy hormones like serotonin and dopamine are produced. Serotonin is also the pre-cursor to melatonin your sleep hormone and this is critical to brain health.
Feed your brain with antioxidants. Your brain will surely thank you for feeding it with vitamin A, E, and C as these antioxidants have the potential to fight against unwanted free radicals.
Do exercise daily. It helps you feel better and elevate your mood. Exercise boost blood flow to the brain and reduce depression and anxiety. Besides this, it triggers the release of chemicals e.g endorphins and serotonin which are natural mood stabilizers. It also increases BDNF factor.
Train your mind to practice little activities on daily basis e.g. you can read, solve puzzles or learn something new whether it is a language or a skill. Try to remember small details like what you were wearing yesterday or how was the weather last Friday? The more you will involve yourself in such activities, the more you will be able to keep your mind active and it will improve your cognitive function and memory.
Make sure that you are getting adequate sleep. Poor sleep quality can lead to cognitive impairment and brain fog. Take all the steps that you think can contribute to improving your sleep pattern. Turn off the lights, reduce your screen time and remove all the devices from your room. Lack of sleep can shrink your prefrontal cortex part of the brain and effect your ability to concentrate the next day.
Practice meditation. It not only improves cognitive function but also plays role in relieving stress and sleep problems.
Make sure that your diet is rich in foods that are BDNF boosters. Foods that uplift the BDNF levels include blueberries, cranberries, red grapes, turmeric, fatty fish, dark chocolate, and green tea.
Add choline rich foods as choline is crucial for making acetylcholine a neurotransmitter involved in, improving cognitive functions, and memory performance. During perimenopause, reduced oestrogen levels also affect the production of choline. To overcome choline deficiency, consume liver, fish, eggs, chicken, broccoli, and tempeh on a regular basis.
Try Not to:
Eat saturated, trans fats, and sugary foods.
Do tobacco smoking as it can badly impact the brain function and cerebral blood flow. It not only increases the risk of cancer and heart diseases but also exacerbates the symptoms of menopause especially hot flushes.
Take alcohol as it can trigger hot flushes, insomnia, night sweats, and other menopausal symptoms.
Take diet drinks and artificial sweeteners such as aspartame. Give preference to water to quench your thirst.