Nutrition and mental health during menopause – is there a connection?
Author: Helen Morton
Helen Morton, a registered nutritional therapist, explains the connection between nutrition and mental health during menopause and offers advice on what foods to add to your diet to make you feel happier.
Short answer is yes. Less than ideal food choices can affect your mental health, which may result in feeling irritable, fatigued and low during menopause. Feeling low can also lead to choosing less than ideal food to eat, resulting in a vicious cycle. With a few simple changes to your diet it is perfectly possible to break out of this cycle and improve both your mood and health.
Choosing the right foods
One common reason for feeling low at various points during the day is disrupted blood glucose balance. Choosing foods that release energy slowly, those with a low glycaemic load (GL), mean that blood glucose levels remain stable and mood is more likely to be more stable too (1). Fish, meat, poultry, eggs, beans and pulses, nuts and seeds, vegetables, fruits, oils and fats have a lower GL than grains. Wholegrains have a lower GL than white bread, pasta and rice. Eating regularly, perhaps five smaller meals a day rather than three larger meals, helps keep mood and blood glucose levels on an even keel. Avoid sugary, processed foods like cakes, sweets and biscuits which may feel like they boost your mood at first, but once the effect has worn off and blood glucose levels have dropped, will likely cause your mood to plummet. Remember, you want to break out of this cycle to improve your mood and health.
Choosing foods with a low GL will help to balance the supply of glucose to your brain therefore helping balancing mood. Low mood is also related to your supply of brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters, which play a role in how you think and feel. Serotonin, often referred to as the ‘happy hormone’, is made from the amino acid tryptophan and works with other neurotransmitters, dopamine and noradrenaline, to lift mood and help deal with stress (2,3). Tryptophan is found in eggs, turkey, cheese, almonds, and pumpkin seeds.
Additionally, studies have shown that foods with high levels of magnesium, zinc and vitamin B12 can help convert tryptophan and other amino acids into your body’s feel-good chemicals (4,5). Wholegrains, leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds are good food choices.
At present, evidence does not support low vitamin D levels in menopausal women impacting on low mood (6). However, the fact remains that there is a strong relationship between vitamin D insufficiency and feeling depressed in the general population (7). Sunlight is the best natural source of vitamin D but many people in the UK, for example, do not get enough exposure to sunshine for optimal vitamin D levels. Oily fish is a dietary source of vitamin D, with eggs and mushrooms also containing some. Supplementing with vitamin D is beneficial for most of us, especially throughout the winter, however you should always consult with your GP first and get your levels checked.
As the seasons change and the days get shorter and darker many of us start to feel more ‘down’ and suffer with lower mood. As well as being a source of vitamin D, oily fish also contains EPA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid, which is well studied for its beneficial effects on low mood and depression (8). Try to include a range of oily fish, such as mackerel, salmon, and sardines into your diet three times a week.
Something else to consider when it comes to nutrition and mental health during menopause is that you may be eating foods which you have an intolerance to. Any food that makes you feel worse than before you ate it, whether that is from digestive discomfort, headaches, or brain fog, is likely to lower your mood. Common offenders include dairy foods and gluten grains. Keeping a food and mood diary is a very simple yet powerful way of identifying your own personal food triggers.
The food-mood connection is strong. Improving your diet really can help you experience more positive feelings and balanced moods.
About the Author
Helen Morton (DipION) is a qualified, registered Nutritional Therapist. She is a member of the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) and Complimentary and Natural Health Care Council (CNHC). Helen has a special interest in nutrition for mental health, stress management, overall women’s health including menopause, and sports and running performance. If you would like to book a free 20-minute consultation with Helen to discuss your individual nutritional requirements, please visit her website at: www.helenmortonnutrition.com
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