What We Know About Hormones, Brain Fog & Women's Brain Health
People with uteruses go through the wringer. The aches and pains the female body endures preparing for pregnancy every month is nothing to scoff at. (And don't get me started on the ups and downs of pregnancy—or childbirth!)
At times, hormonal changes are more annoying than dreadful, though. For example, how many times has your period snuck up on you and stained your favorite pair of lounge pants—or your sheets in the middle of the night? Then, after decades of getting used to these monthly visits, your body suddenly shifts into reverse and BAM—you're dealing with a new set of unique hormonal challenges during menopause.
Whether you're 18 or 88, if you've had a menstrual cycle, you've seen (and experienced) a lot of hormonal changes. What you may not know is how your hormones, your cycle, and the stages of your life influence your brain and cognitive function.
You may have moments of mental fogginess, difficulty concentrating, and not-so-great memory, during your cycle, during pregnancy, and just before and during menopause. Hormonal brain fog is a widely experienced phenomenon that, thanks to the gender disparity in brain health science (more on that later), isn't well-researched.
So, we had to tap the experts to find out what exactly is causing this kind of fogginess and how to improve mental clarity during hormonal shifts.
What is hormonal brain fog?
As I mentioned, hormones heavily affect cognitive function. Integrative dietitian and hormone expert Whitney Crouch, RDN, CLT, shares that occasional brain fog may be experienced at different times in a monthly menstrual cycle and while moving through life stages like pregnancy, postpartum, and perimenopause.
In addition to clouded thoughts, side effects may include forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating. According to Crouch, it's unclear why these effects happen, but they're linked to hormone balance (or rather, the lack thereof).
What we know about the female brain, and what we don't.
So, why don't we have a better understanding of what causes hormonal brain fog in 2022? To put it bluntly, there's a lack of research on female brains. Women's brain health, specifically, is an under-researched, underrepresented, and unspoken area, according to leading neuroscientist and women's brain health advocate Lisa Mosconi, Ph.D.
"Somehow, in the landscape of things that we're told a woman should be concerned with, her brain has seldom been one of them," Mosconi previously wrote for mbg. "Further, very few doctors have the knowledge or framework to address the many ways that brain health plays out differently in women than in men."
Though our understanding of what makes the female brain so foggy is limited, some basic knowledge about how hormones affect the brain is available to us today.
Times women may experience hormonal brain fog.
Times of hormone fluctuations—including menstrual cycles, pregnancy, and before and during menopause—can cause shifts in brain chemistry and temporarily affect mental clarity. Let's review the exact hormones responsible for cognitive changes during these transitions.
During the menstrual cycle.
Hormones are constantly in flux during your menstrual cycle. Crouch thinks of hormones as "performing a delicate dance" where the levels of one affect the levels of another. She describes estrogen as the ringleader.
"Estrogen rises after the menstrual bleed and peaks just before ovulation. After ovulation, estrogen falls and progesterone rises in preparation for implantation of a fertilized egg," explains Crouch.
When estrogen and testosterone levels rise before ovulation, it is common to experience more clarity, confidence, and energy. But when those hormones drop after ovulation, well, that's when the temporary brain fog occurs. (So, fingers crossed that the big assignment or presentation you have coming up falls on that powerful time just before ovulation!)
Here's a deep dive into what's happening to your brain during your period, if you're curious.
Whether you call it pregnancy brain or baby brain, lack of mental clarity during pregnancy is real—and common. "Pregnancy brain" may consist of suboptimal cognitive function, memory difficulties, and subpar executive functioning skills.
During pregnancy, progesterone levels shift, leading to changes in mood and even temporary lapses in memory. The surge of hormones during this time leads to changes in brain structure for up to two years post-pregnancy.
These changes in the brain and the "remarkable degree of plasticity" prepare you for attachment and the ability to care for your new baby. (So cool!) Unfortunately, you may deal with some mental fogginess as a result of these rapid changes.
This is a taxing time for you and your body—give yourself a break for forgetting something here and there.
Before and during menopause.
As Crouch explained, estrogen leads the show in the dance that is your hormones. Estrogen has superpower-like abilities when it comes to the brain—such as enhancing neurotransmitters that improve memory and learning. But in menopause, estrogen levels drop.
During perimenopause—i.e., the time just before menopause—estrogen and progesterone fall. This corresponds with a drop in serotonin (aka the "happy hormone"), which contributes to those moments of mental fogginess. "As the nerve-protecting qualities of estrogen are falling alongside serotonin and progesterone, women can feel more stressed, tired, and fuzzy," shares Crouch.
7 ways women can deal with hormonal brain fog.
According to Crouch, even though these hormone fluctuations are common, certain stressors may exacerbate brain fogginess. Supporting your brain health overall and during these specific times of changing hormones with these seven tips can ease the annoying (or worse) effects of hormonal brain fog by promoting clarity, energy, and good sleep:
- Take a proactive brain health supplement. A smart supplement (literally) like mbg's brain guard+ will provide targeted support to protect and nourish your brain health and cognitive performance no matter what phase of life you're in. For example, supplementation with resveratrol, one of the key ingredients in the brain guard+ trifecta, has been shown to improve cognitive flexibility and processing speed in postmenopausal women.*
- Practice stress management. Managing the stress in your life helps your brain function better overall. Crouch recommends yoga, breathing exercises, meditation, journaling, or other activities that support mindfulness and hack stress.
- Move your body. Beyond the physical and mental health benefits, exercise can help regulate your endocrine system and balance your hormones. Just be sure to take it easy on days of your cycle you might not have as much energy (like during menstruation).
- Get good-quality sleep. Deep, restful sleep gives your body and mind (and hormones!) time to recharge and reset for the next day. Without sufficient sleep, your hormones may fall out of sync and lead to other health concerns (like fogginess) down the road.
- Eat a plant-rich diet. Maintaining a balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruits, veggies, healthy fats, and lean protein (like the Mediterranean diet) can help modulate hormone balance. Choose organic (and local) whenever you can, as unwanted toxins from pesticides can tax your detoxification system.
- Mind your gaps. Key micronutrients like iron and B vitamins are critical for red blood cell health and function. Red blood cells deliver the nutrients and oxygen throughout the body, so some women perceiving occasional fog may be dealing with nutrient inadequacies. Consider taking a high-quality multi (like mbg's ultimate multivitamin+) to ensure you're getting the essential vitamins and minerals you need every day.
- Partner with your health care practitioner. If you’re worried about your hormone levels, ask your provider about pertinent hormone testing (e.g., sex hormones, full thyroid panel, adrenal function, cardiometabolic biomarkers like blood sugar and insulin, etc.). Personalized testing may reveal an opportunity for healthful lifestyle changes or even a targeted addition of key hormones (even bioidentical hormone therapy, as advised by your health care practitioner).
During your menstrual cycle, pregnancy, and before and during menopause, it's important to take extra great care of your brain. Supporting your brain health by taking a targeted nootropic supplement, managing stress, and eating well can help ease the inevitable mental fuzziness that comes along with these stages of life (and promote brain longevity and mental clarity now and down the road).*
"As women, we experience gaps in income, power, and representation, but we also face a gap in knowledge about our health, collectively and individually. It's time to rectify this and to address our unique concerns as related to our brains and to our bodies as a whole. We all want our cognitive life span to match our life span," Mosconi says. "We must be proactive now."