Brain fog is a common symptom reported by women going through the menopause. A question I often get asked by my clients is what should you eat for brain fog? This article discusses why brain fog occurs and how you can use nutrition to help.
What is Brain Fog?
Brain fog is not a medical condition but is used to described symptoms such as:
- poor concentration
- fuzzy thoughts
- lost words
- mental fatigue
- thinking more slowly than usual.
Brain fog is not usually permanent, and doesn’t signify structural damage to the brain, like in dementia. It can occur after infection, head injury, during the menopause, and if you have anxiety, depression, or stress . In one study, between 60% and 82% perimenopausal and menopausal women reported having reduced memory and mental clarity.
Why do Menopausal Women Experience Brain Fog?
One suggested cause for the symptoms of brain fog in menopausal women is due to the decline in oestrogen production. A study into the effects of common medications used in hormone replacement therapy (HRT), identified positive effects on the brain .
However, more recent studies have suggested that factors such as stress, anxiety, depression, and disturbed sleep quality that occur during menopause may have more of an impact on brain fog symptoms. This is because studies including HRT found that it didn’t influence cognition in all menopausal women and could actually increase the risk of developing dementia .
Brain fog and sleep
Multiple studies have identified the decline in sleep quality following menopause, including difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, and sleep quality. Furthermore, the prevalence of insomnia in post-menopausal women is around 63%. This is much higher than in the general population.
A study into the cognitive performance of elderly women including a self-reported measure of sleep duration and quality found that women who slept for five or less hours each night performed worse on verbal memory, attention, and general cognition tests, compared to women who slept for at least seven hours each night. Additionally, women who reported difficulties with falling and staying asleep performed worse on these tests compared to those with few or no problems with falling and staying asleep .
Mood changes are a common symptom of menopause. Studies suggest between 12-36% of peri- and post-menopausal women experience depression . Common symptoms of depression include decreased motivation and concentration. These symptoms can negatively impact cognitive function and lead to symptoms of brain fog. However, some studies have also suggested that depressive episodes may cause atrophy (shrinking or wasting) to areas of the brain, including the hippocampus, a brain structure responsible for sustaining episodic memories .
Nutrition for Brain Fog
Nutrition can be a useful way to improve menopausal symptoms that contribute to brain fog. Learning what you can eat for brain fog can be useful to help manage your symptoms.
Plant oestrogens (phytoestrogens) have been shown to help relieve menopause symptoms. They are like human oestrogen so if eaten often and in good amounts, they can have similar effects to human oestrogen, which can help with the decline in oestrogen levels throughout menopause.
Foods containing plant oestrogens include flax seeds, soybeans, dried fruit, seeds, berries, tofu, cauliflower, and cabbage.
It is important to note that phytoestrogens may not work for everyone. It can take months for their effects to be seen. They can reduce symptoms such as hot flushes in some women. There is also evidence for the benefits of consuming plant oestrogens throughout the day, rather than in a single, large dose .
What we eat can influence out sleep quality. There are a number of nutrition factors that can influence your sleep. It is not just what you should eat for brain fog that you need to consider but also what you drink.
Sleep and caffeine
It is recommended to avoid drinking caffeine or limiting its intake. Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors in the brain and interferes with circadian melatonin rhythms. Adenosine is a chemical that promotes sleep, so when adenosine receptors become blocked, we feel more alert rather than sleepy. The quality and onset of sleep can be affected by your caffeine intake.
If you do choose to consume caffeine, it is suggested that you should do this earlier in the day. This is as the amount of time it takes for your body to process half of the caffeine ingested is around 4-6 hours. Some examples of foods containing caffeine are :
- fizzy drinks
Sleep and carbohydrates
Another suggestion would be to stop eating around 2 hours before bedtime. This is because when we eat our bodies produce insulin which suppresses melatonin, a chemical that promotes sleep. It is also important to ensure that meals before bedtime are not very high in carbohydrates. Studies show a significant trend between worse sleep quality and increasing carbohydrate intake, particularly with frequent consumption of energy drinks and fizzy drinks . Therefore, a high carbohydrate intake can increase the number of times you wake up during the night and decrease the amount of deep sleep that you get .
What we eat can have an impact our brains, and there are a number of key nutrients that can promote good mood and healthy cognitive functioning. Our brains use 20% of the total energy that our bodies need, which means that carbohydrates are essential for brain health. When we don’t have enough glucose in our blood, we can feel tired, weak and ‘fuzzy minded’. However, eating regular meals throughout the day, containing wholegrain sources of carbohydrates, can help to ensure that you have adequate levels of glucose in our blood .
Vitamins and minerals for mood
The lack of certain vitamins and minerals may also influence your mood and cognitive functions, this includes:
- Iron (red meat, fish, beans, pulses, and fortified cereals) – a lack of iron can cause us to feel weak, tired, and lethargic
- B vitamins (fortified foods, meat, fish, eggs, and dairy) – a lack of B vitamins can cause irritability, low mood, and tiredness
- Folate (liver, green vegetables, citrus fruits, beans, and fortified foods) – a lack of folate can cause increased feelings of depression, especially in older individuals
- Selenium (brazil nuts, meat, fish, seeds, and wholemeal bread) – a lack of selenium can increase the incidence of negative moods.
Additionally, Vitamin D is another nutrient of concern as many people are deficient in it. A symptom of its deficiency includes depression . Vitamin D can be found in oily fish, red meat, egg yolks, and fortified foods, but a supplement of 10 micrograms may be taken if you are at particular risk of vitamin D deficiency .
Finally, healthy fats, particularly omega-3, are an important part of your diet to promote good cognitive function and mood state. Foods containing omega-3 include oily fish, nuts, green leafy vegetables, seeds, and fortified eggs. Recent studies have identified a link between low levels of omega-3 in the body and incidence of depression and anxiety . Additionally, there are numerous studies identifying the positive relationship between omega-3 intake and cognitive function [15, 16, 17].
These are numerous foods and nutrients that are beneficial for brain fog during menopause. Eating a varied, balanced diet is the most effective way of ensuring what you should eat for brain fog to help this common symptom.
For more information about menopausal symptoms and how to manage them with nutrition. Book a FREE 15 minute discovery call with me
Caroline Hill is a specialist menopause dietitian supporting women making dietary change. Caroline uses her extensive knowledge, skills and expertise of food and nutrition to help women manage their symptoms and weight during menopause. Caroline believes in providing sustainable, individualised, evidence-based advice to women making dietary change.