The stresses and strains of menopause and midlife can feel like an emotional rollercoaster. Registered Nutritional Therapist Jackie Lynch shares four ways that the right food and nutrition can help to calm your nerves, boost your low mood and put the spring back in your step.
It’s common to feel low in menopause
Hot flushes are the menopause symptom that most women consider to be an early warning sign of the menopause. But actually, it’s the psychological and emotional symptoms that tend to be the first ones to kick in.
RELATED ARTICLE: 34 symptoms of menopause & perimenopause symptom checker.
These often start much earlier than you’d expect. For most women, hormonal changes are starting to take place in the background from the early to mid-40s. This commonly starts with a decline in progesterone which is often at the root of symptoms such as low mood or mood swings, anxiety and loss of confidence.
The result of all this is that the perimenopause can feel like an emotional rollercoaster at times. Your hormone levels will fluctuate wildly and it can cause a lot of confusion and upset. This will be especially the case if your periods are still regular and you don’t automatically associate your symptoms with the menopause.
Then add in the general stresses and strains of midlife – juggling a demanding job with the needs of a growing family; caring for elderly relatives; financial or health worries; questioning yourself and your life choices; not to mention the additional pressures that Covid-19 has brought in the last year.
It’s no surprise at all if you’re feeling pretty low right now.
How to boost your menopausal low mood with your food
To begin to tackle your symptoms, it’s a smart move to get the basics of your diet right. This can have a major influence on your mental health and wellbeing.
As always remember that if your symptoms persist or are seriously affecting your daily routine, then it’s advisable to consult your doctor for advice to rule out a medical condition or to see if Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) is suitable for you.
RELATED ARTICLE: HRT explained
Here are four ways that the right nutrition can help to calm your nerves, boost your mood and put the spring back in your step:
Boost B vitamins
- WHY? If you lack motivation and feel lethargic and a bit low, then B vitamins might be the issue, as they’re vital links in the chain reaction of energy production. They also play an essential role in converting nutrients into serotonin, the good mood neurotransmitter, and work in synergy, targeting different areas. For example, a deficiency in thiamine (vitamin B1) can cause emotional disturbances, a lack of niacin (vitamin B3) has been directly associated with depression and low levels of vitamin B12 can lead to low mood, irritability and poor memory.
- WHAT? Vegetables are a great source of many of the different B vitamins, but be careful how you cook them. B vitamins are water soluble, so up to 40% of the goodness can end up in the water, if you boil them for too long. Try steaming or steam-frying to maintain vitamin levels. Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal sources, such as meat, fish or eggs, which is a consideration for vegans, who may need to take a supplement. Stress, alcohol and the oral contraceptive pill can all deplete B vitamins, so it’s advisable to factor in an extra boost if any of these apply to you
- HOW? Make sure that your 5-a-day is skewed 4:1 in favour of vegetables if you want to boost B vitamin levels. Wholegrains such as brown rice are another excellent source. Egg yolk, meat and fish are all good sources of vitamin B3. Some foods, such as yeast extract spreads or certain breakfast cereals can be fortified with vitamin B12 for vegans who prefer not to take supplements.
- WHY? Feeling jittery and anxious? Tense, nervous headache? Tight neck and shoulders? Sluggish bowel? All of these can really impact your mood, so it could be time to look at your magnesium levels. Magnesium regulates the nervous system and well as being responsible for muscle contraction and relaxation, so a deficiency can cause a range of symptoms from migraine (by constricting the blood vessels in the brain) to constipation by inhibiting peristalsis, the contraction of muscles that moves stools through the gut. Low levels of magnesium may also result in anxiety and panic attacks and can inhibit the production of serotonin.
- WHAT? Leafy green vegetables, almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds and pulses are all good sources of magnesium, as well as whole-grain foods. Another great way to boost your magnesium levels is to throw a couple of handfuls of Epsom Salts (magnesium sulphate) into a bath or foot bath, as the magnesium will absorb through the skin relaxing your muscles and promoting a restful night’s sleep. It’s the perfect way to end a stressful day.
- HOW? A daily dose of leafy green vegetables is the way to go, but if you get bored of eating your greens, you could try juicing spinach, kale or watercress with some apple to sweeten it, as it’s a good way to rack up the magnesium. A sprinkling of pumpkin seeds on your breakfast cereal, soup or salad is a smart move, or you could try a magnesium double-whammy of cashew butter on a brown rice cracker.
Nourish your neurotransmitters
- WHY? Serotonin isn’t the only neurotransmitter that improves your mood and banishes the blues. Adrenaline, noradrenaline and dopamine all have the feel-good factor and help to improve motivation, concentration and memory, as well as contributing to stress management. Low levels of these neurotransmitters can leave you feeling lethargic, distracted and demotivated. The body uses amino acids which are found in protein foods to generate neurotransmitters, so it’s important to make sure that your diet contains adequate amounts of protein so that all the building blocks are there.
- WHAT? Good quality protein should form part of every meal or snack, but many of us tend to save it for the evening meal, which simply isn’t giving our body enough material to work with. Good sources of protein include meat, fish, eggs, lentils, chickpeas (houmous), beans, dairy, quinoa, nuts and seeds. Don’t neglect protein at breakfast time as it will help to kick-start your brain and make sure that a quarter of the overall meal at lunch and dinner consists of protein.
- HOW? An egg is a great way to start the day, but not so practical if you’re rushing off to work. Try adding a tablespoon of mixed seeds, such as pumpkin, sunflower and flaxseed to your morning cereal or porridge for a good helping of protein, or have protein-rich peanut or almond butter with your toast. Make sure your lunchtime salad or soup includes plenty of lean meat, fish, lentils or beans, so that you’re not just eating vegetables. Snack on raw almonds or add a generous dollop of houmous to an oatcake, so that you’re not relying on dinner to be the only time you eat protein.
Vitamin D is vital
- WHY? You’re probably already aware that vitamin D is important for bone health, because we need it to absorb calcium, which helps us to build strong bones. But vitamin D has a much broader influence on our health – it’s important for optimal immune function and also plays a key role in mental health. Low levels of vitamin D can cause low mood and has also been linked to seasonal affective disorder, which could explain why some people struggle with low mood during the winter months.
- WHAT? The principal source of vitamin D is sunlight, as it’s synthesised by the body through exposure to sunshine, so by this time of year a large proportion of the UK population is likely to be deficient. That’s the reason the NHS recommends we all consider a daily vitamin D supplement throughout the winter months. If you’re concerned about your vitamin D levels, a quick blood test would identify any deficiency and your GP can advise on next steps if you need a therapeutic dose.
- HOW? It’s not easy to source vitamin D from food – not many foods actually contain it and where you can find it, for example in oily fish or dairy, the quantities are minimal. Most multivitamins and minerals contain a basic dose of 400IU, although I’d generally recommend 1000IU daily for women in midlife, as a good maintenance dose.
RELATED ARTICLE: Complete guide to vitamin D
About the author: Jackie Lynch is a Registered Nutritional Therapist and author of The Happy Menopause: Smart Nutrition to Help You Flourish. She is also the host of the popular diet and lifestyle podcast The Happy Menopause. Follow her at @WellWellWellUK. Find out more about Jackie in The Latte Lounge health & wellness directory.
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