It has been a long time coming but mental health issues are finally getting the attention that they rightly deserve. And it seems that women are more affected than men. According to large-scale population studies women are 1.5-3 times more likely to be affected by major depressive disorders than men. The studies also indicate that women are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders. Many women also suffer from memory loss, mood swings, low motivation, brain fog and high stress levels.
Mental health issues can obviously be triggered by circumstances – whether it is relationship troubles, trauma, bereavement, financial troubles, sickness or something else. Circumstances can play a defining role in mental health. But they are not the only cause. There are proven links between mental health issues and other imbalances in the body – such as hormones and the gut.
Let’s take a closer look at the hormone connection
There is a strong relationship between hormones and the brain. Signals from the brain determine which hormones are produced, and hormones in the body also influence brain activity and mental health. Let’s look at some of the different hormones and how they affect the brain and the body.
Cortisol – In today’s world stress is unrelenting, constantly causing your body to switch on your fight or flight response, resulting in high or low levels of cortisol, which can interfere with your brain neurotransmitters, notably serotonin (your ‘happy’ hormone), dopamine (the ‘feel good’ hormone) and GABA (your ‘calming’ hormone).
Thyroid – When low levels of the thyroid hormone occur this can cause brain function to slow down and can result in depression, anxiety, brain fog and memory loss.
Oestrogen – For women oestrogen levels can fluctuate wildly during their monthly cycle and especially during peri-menopause. Too much oestrogen can cause irritability and anxiety whilst too little can make you depressed, foggy and over-emotional.
Progesterone has a calming effect on the brain as it stimulates the brain’s GABA receptors – the feel-good, calming neurotransmitters. This hormone declines sharply after the age of 35.
Testosterone is not just a male hormone, women need it too. It can rapidly deplete as we get older, and can result in low mood, motivation and increased anxiety.
Insulin – A diet high in refined carbs and sugar can create too much insulin in the body, which can lead to inflammation in the brain, altering your mood.
Vitamin D is actually a hormone with a large number of receptors in the brain. As many of us live in areas with little sunshine for large parts of the year, deficiency is common. Low Vitamin D is linked with mood disorders and depression.
The Gut Connection
According to scientists, your gut is actually your second brain and has a big role to play in the functioning of your body and your brain. Your gut is talking to your brain constantly. So if you have any gut imbalances (symptoms might include IBS, constipation, diarrhoea, gas, bloating, pain, indigestion, food sensitivities), then it might be affecting the way your brain is working and your mental health.
As well as eating a diet high in sugar and refined carbs, which can increase our insulin levels, there are also several nutrient deficiencies that have been linked to low mood and other mental health issues. These include:
- B vitamins (especially B6, B12 and folate) is needed for neurotransmitter function
- Tryptophan is an amino acid that is a precursor to serotonin
- Omega fats including EPA, DHA and GLA – your brain is made up of 60% fat!
- Zinc helps to create new brain cells
- Magnesium is thought to help improve brain plasticity
- Vitamin D helps to reduce inflammation and regulate nerve cell function
Tips to improve your mental health
- Get tested – hormones, gut, Vitamin D, B12 and folate to see what your levels are and if you could benefit from supplements
- Balance your blood sugar by eating protein and healthy fats at each meal with plenty of vegetables and fibre. It is also important to limit sugar, alcohol, caffeine and refined carbs
- Get some sunshine for your Vitamin D, or take a supplement (seek professional advice first)
- Reduce your stress levels – try deep breathing, relaxation, meditation, yoga or whatever works for you but just make sure that you do it regularly
- Put some Epsom Salts in your bath – the magnesium helps with relaxation as well as brain health
- Get out in nature – walking and spending time outside has been shown to help lift mood and reduce stress
- Supplements can help – a good B complex (with active methylated forms), EPA DHA fish oil, Magnesium and Vitamin D, along with a good multi mineral formula
- Mood boosting foods
Try including some of these in your diet to feed your brain whilst at the same time boosting your mood:
- Eggs – choline, protein, B vitamins, magnesium, zinc
- Oats, brown rice, quinoa – B vitamins and fibre
- Turkey – tryptophan, B vitamins, zinc, protein
- Dark chocolate – magnesium and antioxidants
- Seeds especially chia & walnut (omega 3’s), almonds (magnesium), brazil nuts (selenium)
- Seafood – iodine, zinc, B vitamins
- Oily fish – EPA/DHA omega 3 fats
- Dark green leafy veg (especially broccoli and watercress) – iron, magnesium, zinc, folate, sulphur