Our latest blog explores specific nutrients and dietary patterns that are most supportive of female brain health across the lifespan.
The age at which periods begin varies from female to female. Therefore it is highly beneficial to establish a varied diet from an early age, with a wide range of colourful vegetables and fruits, nuts, seeds, pulses and essential fats from nutritious sources such as oily fish and unprocessed olive and coconut oils. This will help to set the foundations for key nutrients, which will support female hormone health, as well as brain and overall health, across the lifespan.
Periods normally begin between the ages of 10-16, although they can begin at a younger age, due to genetic and environmental factors. Periods onset may also be delayed to a later age in individuals who have a family history of late-onset periods, are doing large amounts of exercise, experience stress, are underweight, or have an eating disorder or health condition affecting the ovaries.
Some key nutrients for menstruating women include:
The average blood loss experienced across a period is estimated to be between 3-5 tbsps of blood, and iron loss may occur at varying degrees depending on heaviness of the period blood flow. It is therefore imperative to ensure iron levels are maintained across a woman’s lifespan. Females with iron deficiency may manifest with symptoms such as pale skin, low energy, failure to thrive, reduced appetite and behavioural and emotional issues.
Females with iron deficiency may also have higher risk of developing depression and anxiety, because deficiency of iron causes altered levels of serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin and dopamine are two neurotransmitters involved in mood regulation. Furthermore, iron deficiency results in alteration to balances of the neurotransmitters glutamate and GABA, which have an excitatory and calming effect on the nervous system, respectively. Iron status should be monitored and supported through nutrition and, if required, supplementation throughout a woman’s menstrual life.
Consuming fats is essential for female hormone health. Oestrogen and progesterone, hormones involved in the female reproductive system, are synthesised from cholesterol. There has been a focus in the last few decades on cholesterol levels that are too high. However, it is equally important, but perhaps less discussed, to ensure that cholesterol levels do not become too low, as this can impact on female hormone balance. Female adolescents following low fat diets, or diagnosed with an eating disorder, are particularly at risk of experiencing hormonal imbalance, for this reason.
Women should ensure they are consuming monounsaturated fats, such as avocado and olive oil, and polyunsaturated fats, such as omega-3. Research has demonstrated that omega-3 is involved in modulating mood, memory and cognition. The role of omega-3 in supporting the gut-brain axis is also an important consideration. Omega-3 fats are essential for increasing and maintaining levels of beneficial bacteria in the gut microbiome. Some strains of beneficial gut bacteria are involved in the synthesis of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and GABA, which are all involved in modulating mood. This provides one possible explanatory mechanism for why omega-3 may be supportive of mental well being during a woman’s cycle, as low serotonin and dopamine levels have been suggested to be associated with some symptoms of PMS and PMDD. Furthermore, in a recent study women with PMS who were administered omega-3 fatty acids were observed to experience fewer symptoms long term.
Omega-3 fats, in the forms of EPA and DHA, are found in oily fish such as salmon and mackerel, as well as in algae. They are also found in walnuts and flaxseeds, in the form of ALA. However, it should be noted that the body has to convert ALA into DHA and EPA, forms the brain can utilise more readily. This conversion process is not particularly efficient, but recent research has suggested that this conversion pathway can be enhanced by curcumin, which is found in turmeric. Although these findings hold promise for the potential role of curcumin, and possibly other polyphenols, in supporting ALA conversion, further research is required to explore these findings in humans.
An emerging area of research is the role of zinc in supporting women’s hormone health. A recent randomised double blinded control trial indicated that women with PMS who were administered zinc sulphate were observed to experience significant improvement to PMS symptom severity and improvement to quality of life. These findings were further supported in a 2020 study on female university students. An additional study demonstrated that zinc supplementation had a significant impact on reducing physical and psychological symptoms of PMS, as well as increasing levels of BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), a key molecule in the brain involved in learning and memory, and reducing oxidative stress, a major trigger for inflammatory processes.
Menopause is a normal part of a woman’s natural ageing process. It normally occurs between the ages of 45-55. However, premature menopause affects 1 in 100 women, and may occur due to genetic and environmental factors, including early menarche and heavy alcohol consumption throughout life.
Role of Oestrogen and Homocysteine in Women’s Increased Risk of Cognitive Decline Postmenopausally
The nutrition research and strategies discussed above are of merit to continue throughout menopause due to their role in supporting female hormone health, as well as the gut-brain-axis. A key consideration for menopause and brain health is that women’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease increases. One hypothesis is that changes in levels of oestrogen and subsequent impact on the brain’s bioenergetic system may decrease metabolic activity and increase deposit of a key marker of Alzheimer’s disease, beta-amyloid. Recent research has also indicated that levels of homocysteine, a marker involved in neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, rise in response to a fall in oestrogen levels during the menopause.
B Vitamins, Omega-3 and Zinc
Research has indicated that increasing levels of folate and B12, as well as omega-3, may help to reduce levels of homocysteine. This can be done through increasing consumption of green leafy vegetables (folate), chicken and fish (B12) and oily fish (omega-3), as well as through supplementation of these nutrients (particularly B12 and omega-3 if vegetarian or vegan). Furthermore, recent research has highlighted the key role of zinc in significantly reducing concentrations of homocysteine. This may be due to its synergistic relationship with folate and B12.
Following the Mediterranean diet, which involves consuming extra-virgin olive oil, vegetables, fruits, legumes, pulses, nuts and oily fish, may be particularly supportive during menopause. The European Menopause and Andropause Society has also recently proposed the Mediterranean diet as an appropriate dietary pattern post-menopause, as it may help to reduce cognitive decline, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, which are both risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. An additional food of note, which can be incorporated into a Mediterranean diet, is flaxseed, which has been specifically shown to support women during and post menopause. This is possibly due to flaxseed’s omega-3 content (ALA), as well as lignan content, which may help to modulate oestrogen levels.
An area of emerging research is manganese levels and menopause. A recent study indicated that alterations in blood levels of manganese occur before and during menopause. Manganese is a micronutrient required for insulin secretion and blood glucose balance, as well as modulating the body’s endogenous antioxidant systems and thereby reducing oxidative stress, as well as the homeostasis of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, glutamate, and GABA. Further research is required to explore the full mechanisms through which manganese is involved in the menopause, and how altered levels may impact on female brain health.
Notably, many women opt during this stage of life to take hormone replacement therapies (HRT). A recent study published in the British Medical Journal has demonstrated that some types of HRT may increase risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease when used long term. Individuals should consult their doctor before beginning HRT, particularly raising any concerns if they have a family history of Alzheimer’s disease, or exhibiting symptoms of cognitive decline.
Disclaimer: Always consult your doctor or a qualified healthcare practitioner if you are experiencing any symptoms that concern you, such as unexpected period cessation, heavy blood loss, mood swings or memory loss. Also always consult a qualified healthcare practitioner before beginning any new supplement regimen.