Since 2018, Meg Mathews has been one of the UK’s foremost menopause campaigners, determined to use her profile to end the stigma surrounding it. In a new fortnightly column for Stella magazine, she reveals what she’s learnt. This week: what it feels like to suffer from menopause brain fog.
At the start of menopause, I thought I was going mad. I kept thinking, ‘My God, I’ve got dementia.’ Sadly my mum was diagnosed with dementia before she passed away, so I was convinced the same thing was happening to me.
Today, I know it was ‘brain fog’, and I suffered badly with it. I was struggling with major anxiety and didn’t want to leave the house. Looking back, I believe my anxiety (which was caused by the menopause) triggered my brain fog, as it was through the roof and I just couldn’t think straight.
It started with little things, like I’d leave my keys in the fridge. I could never find anything and I’d drive myself crazy looking for items I had misplaced. My biggest bugbear was losing my car – I would park at Westfield shopping centre and literally forget where my car was (although I think this happens to a lot of people in car parks). Simple questions, like a friend asking when my daughter’s birthday is, would take me a few seconds to remember. Those few seconds would feel like 20 minutes and I’d start to panic. I’d be like, ‘Hang on… give me a minute, I do know the answer!’ I’d forget the names of things or forget what I was saying mid-sentence. It was terrifying. At the time I was being asked to do lots of talks about the menopause and I would dread them, because I didn’t want people to think I was losing my mind.
Back then I had a collection of designer handbags and I loved to alternate them every day. It got to the point where changing my bag was just too much of an effort as I’d forget to pack my purse or I’d spend 30 minutes trying to find my phone. Designer bags were my guilty pleasure but it became too much of a hassle so in the end, it was easier to stick to the same bag every day.
I didn’t speak to any friends about this – instead I called the Bupa helpline and asked them if I was experiencing early signs of dementia. They explained I would need to speak to my doctor to rule it out. I called the gynaecologist Sara Matthews and she told me that a common menopause symptom was brain fog. I started to research the 34 menopause symptoms and it turned out I was struggling with 27 of them. I couldn't believe it. I started reading everything I could and asked about HRT, as the research said that could help.
Among other jobs, oestrogens stimulate neurotransmitters in the brain. Fluctuating hormone levels can slow down some neurotransmitters, therefore causing a ‘foggy brain’. Many women, especially those aged between 33-55, report problems with working memory, as well as keeping themselves focused. Of course, with menopause onset, you also have lack of sleep and other symptoms like hot flashes, which do not help memory functions.
As soon as my HRT started to kick in, the brain fog and anxiety started to slide away.
At this point I also started to make lists – I became a list person so I could check things off throughout the day and make a note of small things like taking my vitamins or where I had parked my car, or reminding myself to make that brunch reservation…
Some people compare brain fog to pregnancy brain or mummy brain, but I don’t ever remember struggling with forgetfulness when I had my daughter Anaïs. My advice to women struggling with this is to speak to a friend, partner or doctor about it. I wish I had talked to someone sooner – it would have saved so much worry.
If HRT isn’t for you, there are alternatives. Remember to stay hydrated, stay active and try to get a decent sleep each night. Supplements really helped me. Here are a few of my favourites: ginkgo biloba extract, ginseng extract, vitamin C, vitamin E complex and l-theanine (which increases levels of serotonin). Fish oil can help too. Speak to your doctor and see which are the best options for you.
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