Lowering levels of oestrogen and progesterone in menopause have a direct impact on our brain neurotransmitters which can bring on psychological symptoms. The following information will help you support your brain health.
Tryptophan is the precursor to serotonin our ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter.
Women dealing with anxiety may benefit from including rich sources of tryptophan, such as eggs, turkey, fish, dairy, tofu, legumes, salmon, nuts, pumpkin and sesame seeds, into their diets. These protein rich foods also help satiety and regulate blood glucose (sugar) levels.
Including at least three serves of oily fish (salmon, sardines, tuna, trout, anchovy, mackerel) a week will help to meet the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) recommended a daily intake of 250 mg per day of EPA and DHA, plus an additional 100 to 200 mg of DHA. By eating fish (rather than supplements) you will also consume vitamins A, D& B as well as some minerals.
Vegan sources of Omega 3 ALA include flax, pumpkin, and chia seeds walnuts, as well as leafy green vegetables, soya beans, algae
Blood Sugar Balance
If you get the post-lunch energy slump and cravings for simple carbohydrates like crisps, bread, chocolate and caffeine it may be an indicator that your blood glucose (sugar) levels are erratic.
Eating three nutritious low GI meals per day plus a protein-based snack or two may help stabilise your mood and keep blood glucose levels stable. Erratic meal times and skipping meals may trigger overeating and binge-eating which will make the blood sugar rollercoaster continue.
Choosing low glycaemic index (GI) carbohydrates (www.glycemicindex.com)
Sugary processed foods and drinks are high GI foods. They are quickly absorbed, especially if eaten on an empty stomach, creating glucose spikes and dips that may contribute to symptoms of anxiety as well as affecting sleep and energy.
Healthy fat at each meal will help to fuel daily activities and keep blood glucose levels stable.
Sources of healthy fats include cold pressed olive oil, grass-fed butter, nuts, seeds, fish, avocado, eggs, coconut oil,
Here is a link that explains healthy and unhealthy fats.
Sipping water throughout the day will protect against dehydration and constipation. Even mild dehydration can cause irritability, tiredness and restlessness.
Attention needs to be taken with caffeine and alcohol intake. Tea and coffee contain antioxidants but also contains caffeine, which is a stimulant. Other common caffeine-containing drinks include coffee, cola, soft and energy drinks. 400mg of caffeine is the recommended safe limit for most people. Caffeine increases stress hormones which is associated with an increased risk of anxiety. Approximately the average mug of black tea contains 50mg caffeine and the average cup of instant coffee contains 30 to 90mg (fresh coffee can have much more). Remember that ‘decaf’ tea and coffee can still have <10mg caffeine)
Caffeine has a long half-life of 3–7 hours which means half of the caffeine you drank at 12pm will be in your body 5-7 hours later. Caffeine may contribute to insomnia if consumed in the afternoon or evening.
Alcohol and mental health have a complicated relationship. Mental health problems can not only result from drinking too much alcohol, they can
also contribute to people drinking too much. It is sometimes used by some to help ‘numb’ emotions, thoughts and feelings. Alcohol has a depressant effect and, if abused, can lead to rapid deterioration in mood.
Alcohol interferes with sleep patterns which can lead to fatigue. Alcohol depresses the central nervous system, and this can make your moods fluctuate.
Your gut, your second brain
The microbiome-gut-brain axis, is the new(ish) ‘kid on the block’ for improving brain health. Studies show that what you eat will change the composition and metabolic activity of the gut microbiota, with significant health consequences.
A diet rich in fermentable fibres (prebiotics) such as fruit, vegetables, and whole grains, and fermented foods (probiotics) such as live yoghurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh and kefir, is believed to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Eating a varied healthy diet will keep your gut micrbiome happy and healthy.
The brain has a direct effect on the stomach and intestines. For example, the very thought of eating can release the stomach’s juices before food gets there. This connection goes both ways. A troubled intestine can send signals to the brain, just as a troubled brain can send signals to the gut. Therefore, a person’s stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression. That’s because the brain and the gastrointestinal (GI) system are intimately connected.https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-gut-brain-connection
Vitamins and minerals
Vitamins and minerals perform a number of essential functions, including assisting essential fatty acids to be incorporated into the brain and helping amino acids convert into neurotransmitters. They play a crucial part in protecting mental health due to their role in the conversion of carbohydrates into glucose, fatty acids into healthy brain cells, and amino acids into neurotransmitters.
Deficiencies in micronutrients have been implicated in a number of mental health problems.
Depression is the most common mental health problem in the UK. Talking therapies and self-management approaches such as mindfulness and meditation are popular alternatives or additions to using anti-depressant medication. Interventions that focus on the mind/ body link such as exercise, massage and complementray therapies like acupuncture are also helpful.
A low dietary intake of folate may be a risk factor for severe depression. This also indicates that nutrition may have a role in the prevention of depression.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15479987
Similar conclusions have been drawn from studies looking at the link between depression and low levels of zinc and vitamins B1, B2 and C, as well as studies looking at how standard treatments have been supplemented with micro- nutrients resulting in greater reduction in symptoms in people with a diagnosis of depression and bipolar disorder.
Neurotransmitters -messengers in the brain
Neurotransmitters are often referred to as the body’s chemical messengers and their functionality is vital for mental health.
SEROTONIN is a key neurotransmitter that is involved in the regulation of sleep, appetite and aggression.
Serotonin imbalance is a common contributor to mood problems, and pharmacologic agents that alter serotonin levels are among the most commonly used class of drugs prescribed for anxiety and depression.
High stress, insufficient nutrients, fluctuating hormones and the use of stimulant medications or caffeine can all contribute to the depletion of serotonin over time.
When serotonin is out of range, depression, anxiety, worry, obsessive thoughts and behaviors, carbohydrate cravings, PMS, difficulty with pain control, and sleep cycle disturbances can result.
GABA is the major inhibitory neurotransmitter found in the CNS and, as such, is important for balancing excitatory action of other neurotransmitters.
High levels of GABA may be a result of excitatory overload. These high levels result in a ‘calming’ action that may contribute to sluggish energy, feelings of sedation, and foggy thinking. Low GABA levels are associated with dysregulation of the adrenal stress response. Without the inhibiting function of GABA, impulsive behaviors are often poorly controlled, contributing to a range of anxious and/or reactive symptoms that extend from poor impulse control to seizure disorders. Alcohol as well as benzodiazepine drugs act on GABA receptors and imitate the effects of GABA.
DOPAMINE is largely responsible for regulating the pleasure reward pathway, memory and motor control. Its function creates both inhibitory and excitatory action depending on the dopaminergic receptor it binds to. Memory issues are common with both elevations and depressions in dopamine levels. Caffeine and other stimulants, such as medications for ADD/ADHD, often improve focus by increasing dopamine release, although continual stimulation of this release can deplete dopamine over time.
Common symptoms associated with low dopamine levels include loss of motor control, cravings, compulsions, loss of satisfaction and addictive behaviors including: drug and alcohol use, smoking cigarettes, gambling, and overeating. These actions often result from an unconscious attempt to self-medicate, looking for the satisfaction that is not occurring naturally in the body.
Elevated dopamine levels may contribute to hyperactivity or anxiety and have been observed in patients with schizophrenia. High dopamine may also be related to autism, mood swings, psychosis and attention disorders. L-DOPA is a precursor to dopamine, and is used therapeutically for low dopamine conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. These medications can cause elevations in dopamine.
NOREPINEPHRINE, also called noradrenaline, is an excitatory neurotransmitter produced in the CNS, as well as a stress hormone produced in the adrenal medulla. It prepares the body for action by relaying messages in the sympathetic nervous system as part of the autonomic nervous system’s fight-or-flight response. High levels of norepinephrine are often linked to anxiety, stress, elevated blood pressure, and hyperactivity, whereas low levels are associated with lack of energy, focus, and motivation.
EPINEPHRINE, often better known as adrenaline, is synthesized from norepinephrine in both the CNS and the adrenal medulla. Much like norepinephrine, this excitatory neurotransmitter helps regulate muscle contraction, heart rate, glycogen breakdown, blood pressure and more, and is heavily involved in a stress response. Elevated levels of epinephrine are often associated with hyperactivity, ADHD, anxiety, sleep issues, and low adrenal function. Over time, chronic stress and stimulation can deplete epinephrine stores leading to difficulty concentrating, fatigue, depression, insufficient cortisol production, chronic stress, poor recovery from illness, dizziness and more.
Did you know you can test your neurotransmitter levels? The below test is an example of a test I sometimes use with clients to get a clearer understanding of what is happening in the brain.
Below are some ideas how to increase your ‘feel good’ neurotransmitters and reduce your excitatory neurotransmitters which can heighten feelings of anxiety.
Conclusion: As you can see mental health can be supported in many ways. You have the tools to take back control of your brain and get your life back on track.