Brain Fog—Your Brain on Hormones, When You Just Can’t Think
You’ve seen it. Maybe you’ve experienced it…mindlessly walking up and down the aisles of a parking lot, hand held high, furiously clicking the alarm button, in search of your ever-elusive car. Maybe you’re just stressed out you think, or have too much on your plate these days.
Sometimes there’s a biological reason for your forgetfulness and confusion however…especially if you’ve reached middle age.
Could it be brain fog?
In the U.S., approximately 40 million women are currently in the phase of life, known as menopause. For females, the hormone estrogen begins to naturally decline in the middle years, generally at least 2 years prior to the actual cessation of the menstrual period. Serum concentrations of the primary circulating estrogens, estradiol and estrone eventually stabilize to just a fraction of their former levels present in the reproductive years.
According to the Journal of Neuroscience, a study conducted through Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Massachusetts General Hospital andHarvard Medical School supports findings that link menopause to the unofficially named condition, “brain fog”, where memory and cognitive function appear to suffer. The reason for the decline in cerebral activity related to learning and retention points to estradiol, a form of estrogen produced by the ovaries.
In test after test, researchers found that women with lower levels of the powerful hormone performed worse on memory function assessments. Many of the 200 women studied had more difficulty processing new information, remembering short-term details and forgetting basic instructions. Verbal recall suffered as well.
Based on another research study conducted through the University ofRochester Medical Center and the University of Illinois, Chicago, women in their late 40’s and 50’s suffered cognitive challenges related to the menopause transition. Of particular importance were the findings associated with “working memory” and the ability to learn and retain new information,as well as the capacity to focus over time, when a complex task required attention to detail for several hours.
A Seattle Midlife Women’s Health Study further validates midlife brain fog when 60% of women aged 33 to 55 reported perceived unfavorable changesin cognitive function also. These included difficulty with word and numberrecall, losing household items, trouble concentrating, and forgetting eventsand appointments. Research conducted in early postmenopausal women (mean age 52) leads scientists to believe that estrogen’s effects on the brainchemical, serotonin may be key in understanding the relationship betweencognitive symptoms and the menopause transition as a whole.
Brain Fog in Men and Andropause
Women in midlife are not the only ones affected by hormonal changes however. Many middle-aged men suffer memory loss, foggy thinking, and difficulty concentrating as well. Sometimes an underlying health problem is to blame and medical intervention may be necessary. Tens of thousands of men suffer in silence however, with a hormone imbalance that can be corrected.
The term “andropause” refers to a collection of symptoms some men experience in midlife, as a result of gradual declining testosterone levels. At this time, many men begin to exhibit signs of low libido, fatigue, loss of muscle tone and strength and may become moody or short-tempered. Brain fog is also a symptom of andropause. The reason for this points to decreasing levels of testosterone which help regulate the stress hormone,cortisol. This, in turn affects neurotransmitters in the brain causing momentary memory lapses for some.
Symptoms of brain fog include a number of other features as well, including:
- Difficulties with concentration
- Short-term memory loss/forgetfulness
- Mild depression/low motivation
- Insomnia/nighttime waking
- Low motivation to exercise
Reasons For Brain Fog
Beyond hormonal imbalances, research also links the following factors or conditions with brain fog:
- High levels of inflammation in the body
- Poor diet
- Lack of sleep
- Nutrient deficiencies
- Food allergies
- Gluten intolerance
- Brain chemical imbalance
- Low thyroid function
- Adrenal insufficiency
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
Natural Treatment for Brain Fog—What Can Be Done?
Balance Hormones Naturally
Research suggests that brain fog may be, in part the result of fluctuating hormone levels including estrogen, progesterone and testosterone.
Treatment with natural herbs may help minimize the symptoms associatedwith menopause in women.
These plants may support the body’s ability to produce hormones on its own:
- Black cohosh
- Red clover
These herbs bind to empty estrogen receptors.
Other flowering plants and fruits such as passionflower and chaste berry provide calming relief from anxiety, irritability and insomnia, mimicking the ability of progesterone that normally helps regulate positive mood.
Stress effects everyone, regardless of the time of life. For men and women in middle age, life can be especially hectic. Often squeezed between the demands of jobs, older children, and aging parents, midlife can be difficult to navigate at times. It is also a time of great hormonal change, increased medical issues, insomnia, fatigue, and other health problems.
When we are stressed we rely on the hormone, cortisol to give us the energy needed to handle the situation. Over time, cortisol can cause cellular changes that affect attention, short-term memory, and learning new tasks. While stress is unavoidable in modern society, it can be managed effectively with some lifestyle changes and support.
Regular exercise helps the body balance hormones naturally, improves mood, reduces inflammation, and helps with insulin resistance. Each of these are factors in brain fog.
Feed Your Brain for Healthy Support
The following nutrients support the brain’s ability to function correctly in the areas of reasoning, verbalization, and recall:
- Vitamin B1
- Vitamin B2
- Vitamin B6
- Folic acid
- Vitamin E
- Omega-3 fatty acids
To better feed your brain it is important to reduce the intake of sugar, artificial sweeteners, processed foods, refined carbohydrates, alcohol, andcaffeine.
Get Plenty of Sleep
Good sleep helps restore and refresh the body and brain and helps promote clearer thinking in both sexes. In fact, lack of sleep for a period of 48 hours is equivalent to a blood alcohol concentration of 0.1% according to aHarvard Medical School review. While most of us never go that long without some shuteye, the take away here is that sleep is critical to our ability to think, to concentrate, and to process.
Explore Food Sensitivities
Many individuals don’t realize the major role certain foods play in brain fog.Gluten, dairy, soy, corn, and citrus can cause fuzzy thinking and may contribute to other physiological symptoms as well. By eliminating them from the body one by one, food sensitivities can be identified or ruled out simply based on how an individual feels.
Consider Hormone Replacement Therapy
In some cases, brain fog or other symptoms of andropause may be severe or become debilitating. Hormone replacement therapy, including bioidenticals may provide much needed support during this important time of transition.
While many people will handle the middle age years without too manydifficulties, for some, important hormonal changes will create specificphysical and mental challenges that need to be addressed. By making manyof the natural lifestyle changes presented, as well as seeking supplementalnutritional support, brain fog may improve without further intervention. Finding a physician or natural health practitioner to help you through thisvery important period in life may also be necessary.
1“’Brain Fog’ of Menopause Confirmed.” Newsroom -University of Rochester Medical
2Celec, Peter, et al. Frontiers in Neuroscience, Frontiers Media S.A., 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4330791/.
3Greendale, Gail A., et al. Obstetrics and Gynecology Clinics of North America, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Sept. 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3185244/.
4Harvard Health Publishing. “Let Sleep Burn Away Brain Fog, from the March 2014 Harvard Health Letter.” Harvard Health, www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/let-sleep-burn-away-brain-fog.
5Henderson, Victor W. Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Sept. 2008, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2637911/.
6“UF Health CommunicationsUF Health Podcasts.” UF Health Podcasts RSS, news.health.ufl.edu/2017/26704/multimedia/health-in-a-heartbeat/menopause-can-cause-brain-fog/.