Mental Health and Menopause: The Nutrient Guide
It’s probably not shocking that mental health and emotional status can ebb and flow significantly for women during menopause. Though most women can look forward to common menopausal experiences like more frequent hot flashes, some women will also face increased vulnerability to major depressive symptoms during this midlife phase. Perimenopausal women are also at an increased risk for these same symptoms, even more so than during perimenopause.
Mental health risks during menopause
Hormonal imbalances, partially due to decreasing estrogen and progesterone levels, are partly to blame for many typical menopause symptoms, many of which affect mental health. Common psychiatric complaints include sleep disturbances, anxiety, and fatigue, which may have to do with something called the “estrogen withdrawal theory”, or how the body responds to having a reduced level of this female hormone. Some women may be more susceptible. A small 2015 study found that for women with a history of perimenopausal depression, normal changes in estradiol levels that occur during menopause can lead to abnormal behavioral changes.
Why do nutrients matter in menopause?
When undergoing a stressful change like the menopausal transition, which can come with depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders, choosing the right foods is more important than ever. It’s no secret that the body and brain function best when adequately fueled with high-quality nutrition, and menopause is no different. One innovative approach is to use nutritional psychiatry, which is the study of how to use food and supplements to improve mental health. More evidence is pointing to the idea that our diet plays a significant role in supporting our brain - especially during times of physiological change, like menopause. Let’s take a closer look at what types of nutrients deserve the most of our attention.
What types of nutrients do you need during menopause?
Antioxidants are essential for the prevention of oxidative stress, which research shows can lead to other diseases, like anxiety and depression. These magical compounds can be found abundantly in colorful, whole plant foods, and should be incorporated regularly into the diet to reap the most benefits. Research has shown that a low intake of antioxidant-containing foods, fruits, and vegetables appears to have some correlation to an increased risk for late-life depression. When adding on a life change like menopause, when our vulnerability to mental health changes is higher, antioxidant consumption can play an even more crucial role in management. Add more antioxidants into your diet by snacking on raw fruits and veggies with dip, topping oatmeal or pancakes with bright berries, having a mix of dark leafy greens alongside dinner, or blending up the rainbow in a morning smoothie.
Importance of gut health during menopause
Probiotics are another nutritional component that may help manage or prevent, mental health disruptions during menopause. There is a big connection between our gut health and our brain health, often referred to as the “brain-gut-axis.” Researchers believe that the brain and the gut communicate with each other, and may even cause symptoms in each other. For instance, anxiety and depression might cause gastrointestinal symptoms, and stomach-related issues may lead to anxiety and depression. A 2017 review of studies done on the impact of probiotic therapy on depression in humans found compelling evidence that probiotics could be used to alleviate symptoms. So, not only do probiotics offer a potential benefit in hormonal and bacterial balance during menopause, but they could also work with our gut to help maintain our sharp minds. Probiotics are found in fermented whole foods like tempeh, miso, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, and yogurt. Tempeh can easily be used in soups, homemade veggie burgers, and stir-fry dishes. Kimchi and sauerkraut can top sandwiches or burgers. Kombucha, kefir, and yogurt can be used as a base for smoothies or certain marinades.
Benefits of PUFAs during menopause
Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), like omega 3, can also play a positive role in mental health during menopause. Studies have shown promising results with the use of PUFAs to treat neuropsychiatric disorders. These can be found in fatty fish as well as plant foods such as ground flaxseed, walnuts, and canola oil. There are also algae-derived EPA and DHA omega 3 supplements available, which some women may prefer over fish or krill oils. Omega 3 fatty acid supplementation has shown to have a positive impact on anxiety disorders, likely related to its ability to reduce inflammation in the body. A 2018 cross-sectional analysis found that PUFAs and fatty fish can have a protective effect against anxiety. A 2011 study looked at the effects of PUFAs on major depressive disorder associated with the menopausal transition, finding a promising relationship worth further research. Sprinkle ground flaxseed and walnuts on salads, pasta dishes, or cereal. Canola oil can be used in cooking or to make salad dressings.
What kinds of foods should you avoid during menopause?
There are, of course, also certain foods that have been shown to have a potentially detrimental impact on mental health. For instance, foods that are high in refined sugar and saturated and trans fats, which are typical on the Standard American Diet, characterized by a high intake of processed and packaged foods, as well as animal-based products and fried snacks. Excessive intake of these types of foods can be detrimental to our health at any stage in life, but the potential impacts during especially vulnerable stages like menopause warrant further attention.
What you should be eating more of during menopause
To get the most nutritional benefit from your diet, incorporate a wide variety of whole plant foods, like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. Research has shown that individuals who consume more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats have a reduced risk for depression, which could be particularly beneficial during times when we are at increased risk for developing mental health imbalances. Studies on the Mediterranean diet, which is characterized by a high intake of plant foods, olive oil, and herbs (while limiting red meat intake), have shown a protective effect on mental health.
Menopause can be a uniquely challenging time in a woman’s life already, without the added possibility of experiencing more serious psychiatric changes, so it’s nice to know that there may be other options for prevention and management. Treatment options for disturbances in mental health are often dominated by medications and related interventions and, while these can certainly be appropriate, it’s important to remember some of the other things we can do on our own, like eating a healthy diet. So, keep those antioxidants, probiotics, and unsaturated fats flowing - they may play a larger role in our menopausal experience than we realize.
Whether you’re just starting to dip your toes into perimenopause, continuing to experience symptoms into postmenopause, or simply looking for some guidance on what to expect in the coming years of life, we’re here for you! For more information and support around your menopause journey, as well as ideas for symptom relief, join us over at Lisa Health.
Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD, is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, and speaker who helps families transition to plant-based lifestyles. She can be found at laurenpanoff.com or on Instagram @chronicplanet.