It has been reported that up to 60% of women going through menopause and perimenopause report suffering from “brain fog,” the catch-all moniker used to describe the forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating, fuzzy thinking, and lack of motivation that makes our 40s and 50s so much fun. Been told you are crazy? Get ready for some validation: a 2016 research study from the University of Illinois College of Medicine and Stanford University confirms that we aren’t hysterical after all – it really is a thing.
Those haywire hormones are to blame; specifically, dropping estrogen levels, as estrogen is the hormone tied to the area of the brain which processes memory, the hippocampus. Researchers in the study showed that hormone replacement therapy did not have a significant effect on brain activity in that sector, though over time, most women do naturally regain their memory function. That’s a little encouraging…. But assuming that just waiting for it all to end is not a viable course of action, how can we protect our brains from the adverse effects of shifting hormones in middle age?
The answer may lie in the simplest prescription of all: get active. A surprising finding in the study was that active women showed the same levels of brain activity as their pre-menopausal peers. And while no one knows for sure why that is – it could be that consistent physical activity makes the brain resistant to certain hormone fluctuations, or perhaps exercise facilitates the brain’s recruitment of estrogen from other sources, such as stored fat or converting testosterone in the body – either way, it is good reason to get and stay active (if you really needed one more).
You don’t have to run a marathon, although having a big goal like that could help with sticking to it; what’s more important is consistency. I have a rule that I’ve followed for years: even (especially!) when I really don’t want to exercise, I force myself to do something active for 20 minutes. I might go for a walk, take a spin around the neighborhood on my bike, do a super-fast bout of cardio at the gym, or just set the clock and go through my homemade HIIT/Yoga routine. Once that 20 minutes is up, I am free to quit at any time, with no guilt whatsoever. The magic of the 20 Minute Rule is that once you are moving and the endorphins kick in, it is usually pretty easy to just keep going (I mean, I’m already at the gym, might as well finish it out…); but if I DO end up throwing in the towel, I feel good knowing that I have just done better than 99% of the population on any given day, and I really do feel about one hundred times better than I did when I started.
We already know that exercise will work wonders on our mood, weight, and general well-being. Now we have real evidence that we can protect our brains and reverse some of the damaging effects of menopause in the same way. C’mon – who’s up for 20?