I can’t think of a better turn of phrase to describe the muddled, cloudy thinking that many women experience as they head into peri-menopause than BRAIN FOG.
Of course, some women also recognise those muddled thoughts after pregnancy – we’re all familiar with baby brain. But is there anything we can do to get some clarity or are we doomed to forever forgetting where we left our keys and struggling to remember our best mate’s name?
I’ve got 5 quick tips to help you improve your muddy brain and get you feeling a bit more normal again. Any one of them may very well help, but if you give all 5 a go you’ll definitely see some improvements.
MAKE SURE YOU’RE PROPERLY HYDRATED
Many of the symptoms of menopausal brain fog are also symptoms of dehydration. Poor concentration, forgetfulness, difficulty with making decisions and generally feeling confused are common to both dehydration and menopause.
Oestrogen is one of natures natural lubricants and as oestrogen and progesterone decline as we head through peri-menopause and into post menopause, our body’s ability to regulate fluid in the cells is affected, often leading to dehydration.
If we don’t replace that lost fluid we are likely to experience all of those systems twice over!
Ideally you want to be aiming for 2 litres of water every day. All non-alcoholic drinks will help but the body isn’t going to be able to process caffeinated drinks as well as it can clear fluids. Caffeine has a mild diuretic effect which may cause a need to urinate more often which you may have heard will cause dehydration, but in reality the effect is minimal. If you really struggle with plain water, the odd sparkling will also help.
TAKE A BREATH
It may seem strange since we have to breathe to live, but often we don’t breathe in the right way! The problem with brain fog is that when it kicks in it often leaves us feeling anxious and stressed. You know the word you want to use but you just can’t get it out, and now everyone’s staring at you and you can feel yourself getting redder and redder and more embarrassed.
By this point you’re not even thinking with your logical, rational brain, you’re firmly in that primitive, emotional brain and it’s impossible to think straight when you’re in that fight or flight state.
Taking long, slow, deep breaths helps to trigger our parasympathetic nervous system, you might have heard it called our ‘rest or digest’ state. It’s the opposite to the ‘fight or flight’, high stress state which is what we trigger when we’re feeling anxious, embarrassed or scared.
It doesn’t need to take more than a minute or so. Just a few conscious, focused breaths can help to calm us down so we can get back to thinking more clearly. Stress is not going to help brain fog!
GET A SWEAT ON
Getting moving can help to clear the head. In the same way that deep breathing can help to reduce stress, getting the heart pumping can also help brain fog by sending nutrients to the grey matter.
When our heart beats faster we pump more blood around the body and that means more oxygen to the brain. This in turn creates new neurons in the brain – it’s called neurogenesis. Oestrogen depletion affects the ability of the synapses in the brain to fire as well as they should meaning the neural pathways aren’t clear. Exercise can help create and forge new neural pathways, effectively giving the brain a chance to find a clearer route.
Going for a brisk walk or a jog can help, as can cycling, swimming, doing an aerobics class or any other activity that gets your heart rate up and your body temperature raised. Aim to get to the point where you can hold a conversation but not easily. You want to be huffing and puffing but not feeling like you’re going to pass out!
Aerobic activity that gets your heart pumping and your body sweating is also good for reducing hot flushes – so double benefit there.
In much the same way that deep breaths will help shift you from the sympathetic to the parasympathetic nervous system and thus reduce stress, practicing mindfulness regularly can help you to train your brain to become more calm.
There are numerous ways you can do this. Mindful meditation using a guided programme on app such as Calm or Headspace can be very helpful in keeping you focused. But you can also adopt mindful practices into everyday activities.
When you go for a walk leave the headphones behind and be fully present with the world around you. Focus on the colours, the smells, the sounds. Notice the details that you might not always see when you’re plugged in to Spotify or an audio book.
You could also try some mindful playtime. Getting deeply involved in something that you enjoy doing, with no other purpose than to switch off from the world can be really good for stress relief and therefore good for the old brain fog.
Maybe it’s playing a musical instrument, doing a puzzle, doing a cross-stitch or knitting a jumper. It could be doing a bit of gardening or baking. Whatever works for you.
The trick is to make sure it’s something that takes you completely into flow – that feeling of being totally absorbed and oblivious of time or anything else around you.
The problem with alcohol is it’s not great for helping us sleep. You may think it helps you get off to sleep but in reality alcohol stops us from accessing that deep, restorative sleep that enables us to wake up refreshed and full of energy.
It used to be said that alcohol kills brain cells, but that isn’t strictly true. However, it can certainly damage them, by affecting the dendrites, the small protrusions that transfer information.
On top of that alcohol will also dehydrate, so if you’re not drinking enough non-alcohol fluid you’re likely to have all the problems mentioned earlier.
Finally, alcohol consumption is linked to increased anxiety. And as we know, when we’re in an anxious state we don’t think clearly.
So there you go, 5 easy ways to get some clarity back into your thoughts.
For more help and support with the challenges of being a midlife woman join me and my wonderful Facebook community, Your Best Midlife, for more tips and ideas on thriving through your midlife transition.