Part 3: Mental Clarity & Fatigue
By Dr. Sara Hart, ND, MSOM, LAc, owner of Stillwater Healing Arts Clinic, Lyons
There is the unfortunate association with growing old and losing one’s mind. The notion that Grandpa can’t be trusted with the car keys anymore or that we don’t expect our elders to keep the grandkids names straight is accepted as the norm. When women approach menopause, the fear of mental sluggishness or losing words mid-conversation becomes a reality. While far too young to lose one’s mind, women in their 50’s or sometimes earlier with surgical menopause are commonly experiencing these challenges.
Long-term mental health is what we all hope for. For those of you who have frequented nursing homes and spent time with individuals who have lost their cognitive function, you have experienced the challenge that this poses to individuals, families and the community. For people early in this process, it is incredibly frustrating and can lead to serious depression. While menopausal brain fog is not typically as extreme, it is disconcerting, as it exists on the spectrum of cognitive decline.
Mental acuity is rooted in proper nutrition and circulation. The brain has complex organization of nerve function via neurons for systematic communication and glial cells for supportive functioning. Glial cells play a variety of roles for the nervous system and are influenced greatly by the immune system.
During menopause, the decline in estrogen affects every tissue in the body. Estrogen influences the immune system by moderating the impact of inflammation on the body via a component known as immune gobulin 8 or IL-8. Glial cells are particularly influenced by IL-8 and thereby especially vulnerable to changes in estrogen. When estrogen begins to decline, IL-8 is down-regulated significantly, meaning there is no longer the inflammatory moderator to protect the body. As I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, this is akin to a dam being broken that releases the pent up inflammation from a lifetime of challenges.
Once the inflammatory cycle is triggered in glial cells, it is very difficult to shut it down. Without the protection of IL-8 from estrogens decline, the inflammation in the brain is an obstacle to normal cognitive function. Unfortunately, it does not work to replace estrogen exogenously with a pill, cream or suppository. While this can affect some tissues in the body, it does not impact the inflammation of the glial cells. In fact, it has been demonstrated by the Women’s Health Initiative that some women taking Hormone Replacement Therapy have an increased risk of developing cognitive decline and Alzheimers disease.
Inflammation is a whole body issue. While we can identify how the inflammatory cycle begins in the brain, we are less able from a western medical perspective to identify how it ends. This is of course the most interesting component of this topic! From this system, we do however know what contributing factors will make cognitive function worse.
Blood sugar dysregulation – Variability in blood sugar damages end organ tissues. This is especially important for the brain. If you’ve skipped a meal recently you may have felt the irritability, panic, frustration or fogginess of low blood sugar. What you’re not going to feel right away is the more detrimental high blood sugar. This damages tissues slowly over time. Eating adequate protein with each meal (up to 1/3 including and especially breakfast) as well as eating at routine meal times and avoiding snacking are important elements to ensure the stability of blood sugar in healthy individuals.
Circulatory compromise – While the feet may feel cold from poor circulation, you’re brain is actually more difficult to reach from the heart because of the force of gravity. Normal oxygenation of the nervous system as well as detoxification of the tissues through continuous movement of body fluids supports healthy brain function. Daily exercise, proper hydration (at least 1/2 your body weight in fluid ounces) and deep breathing are essentials to protect our circulation.
Toxicity – The blood is not sterile as it was once thought to be and a blood sample from any number of people today will demonstrate an astonishing array of environmental toxins circulating through our bodies in this moment. Chemical compounds that the body doesn’t know how to process end up stored in the tissues, particularly in the fat. The brain is a very fatty tissue. Choosing non-toxic products for daily life, avoiding extraneous chemical substances, consuming organic foods and minimizing automobile, cigarette and plastic use will only benefit our planet and our brains.
Naturopathic medicine employs two main tools for supporting menopausal cognitive decline. Omega 3 fatty acid DHA is the one agent known to reduce inflammation of the glial cells. In addition, consuming adequate omega 3 fatty acids in general has demonstrated reduction in brain shrinkage with age and has implications to protect against dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. How much is enough? The therapeutic dose of Omega 3’s is between 1,000 mg/day and 4,000 mg/day. However, caution must be exercised if there is any risk of poor gallbladder function or other fat metabolism issues. DHA for supporting the nervous system has a therapeutic dose between 100mg/day and 300mg/day for average adults.
The other equally important tool for the whole body is the collection of tools we know as detoxification therapies. These are tools to improve cognitive decline from toxic accumulation, circulatory issues and can assist in the reduction of total body inflammation by improving metabolic function. Adequate hydration, routine cleanse programs, vegetable juicing and sauna use are all gentle and effective tools to utilize regularly for detoxification support.
For more information or questions, please contact Dr. Sara Hart, Naturopathic Doctor and Licensed Acupuncturist at Stillwater Healing Arts Clinic. Join us every Wednesday through September at 9 a.m., for FREE fresh vegetable juices as a demonstration of ways to support your health!