If you are over 40, maybe you can relate to walking into a room and wondering why you were there? Or running around looking for your keys and finding out they were in your hand the entire time? Or maybe you just can’t remember phone numbers or names as well as you used to? These are the moments that you wonder if it’s just normal aging or if you are literally losing your mind. As we enter menopause, it’s time to consider the steps we need to take to preserve our brain health and prevent cognitive decline.
As we get older, some of us may be caring for parents who suffer from varying degrees of dementia or possibly Alzheimer’s disease. Losing our mental ability and function is the #1 fear we have in aging but does it have to be? Statistics show that 1 in 8 senior citizens develop Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). Is there something we are doing, or not doing, to preserve our brain health for ourselves and our families?
In the last 5 years alone, the research around preserving our brain health has exploded in the functional medicine community. It is encouraging to know that we can be in control of our brain health by the way we live our lives: diet, nutrition and exercise. I encourage you to read Dr. Dale Bredeson’s book, The End of Alzheimer’s for the prevention of this type of brain decline.
Neurotransmitters involved in overall brain health:
- Serotonin- for happiness and joy
- Dopamine – for experiencing pleasure, motivation
- Acetylcholine- for learning and memory
- GABA – for relaxation and calm, sleep
As we enter peri-menopause, approximately 8-10 years prior to menopause – or when menstrual cycles stop- our brains seem to change profoundly as we experience viscous mood swings that make us question our sanity! It is often treated as normal and ‘just a part of menopause’ but it’s not normal and we can do something about it. These changes in moods, depression & anxiety is caused from hormone-driven neurotransmitter imbalances, or our brain chemistry.
Our neurotransmitters rely on hormonal balance for receptor site sensitivity and effective communication.
As Men enter this phase of life called andropause, or male menopause, and hormone imbalance impacts neurotransmitters that creates the tired, ‘grumpy old man’ syndrome we associate as normal in middle age. We know that low testosterone causes depression in men but more importantly, it’s a sign of brain degeneration of the frontal lobe. Statin-drugs, are known to lower testosterone in men and also tend to drive the cholesterol below 150 which is also detrimental for brain health
There is good news. We can help ourselves, and the men & women in our lives, to be pro-active in preserving our hormone balance & brain health.
- Women can target hormone imbalance with adrenal or thyroid support, stabilizing blood sugar or bio-identical hormone therapy, if needed, for optimal brain functioning.
- Women with low estrogen levels can cause many of the symptoms we experience heading into menopause such as depression, anxiety and sleep disorders. Knowing if your estrogen is high or low is essential for healthy serotonin levels.
- Women who struggle with high testosterone levels tend to have insulin resistance and can re-balance with a low-carb, slow-carb lifestyle. High testosterone also causes lower estrogen & progesterone levels that neurotransmitters need to function at their best.
- In men, chronically high blood sugar or diabetes contributes to low testosterone by the conversion of testosterone to estrogen through an enzyme called aromatase. As estrogen rises, insulin becomes resistant and blood sugar stays elevated – a viscous cycle.
- Men can raise testosterone and lower estrogen by eliminating sugar & refined carbohydrates, excessive alcohol, and processed foods.
- Men are encouraged to follow an anti-inflammatory diet and manage stress for hormone balance.
- Warning for men: supplementing with Testosterone without dietary & lifestyle changes will end in frustration as the testosterone continues to be aromatized, increasing estrogen instead of testosterone.
- Men need to make these necessary dietary and lifestyle changes to improve testosterone levels that improve moods, motivation and brain health. It’s always important to ask why the Testosterone level is low and start from there.
We also have to be proactive if we have thyroid conditions, even if you are taking thyroid medication, as the thyroid hormone significantly impacts our brain health. Brain-related symptoms are connected to poor thyroid function caused by a significant imbalance of our neurotransmitters in both men and women.
Shockingly, of all the women who complain of brain fog, forgetfulness, depression, anxiety or fatigue and have hypothyroid condition, 60% will go undiagnosed. The American Thyroid Association states that 1 in 8 women will suffer from a thyroid condition. Furthermore, undiagnosed hypothyroidism causes serious conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis and infertility. The first step in prevention is to get screened with the correct labs – the full thyroid panel with antibodies, not only the TSH.
How to Support Your Neurotransmitters:
- Serotonin: requires adequate estrogen to sensitize receptors, adaquate protein, iron, 5-HTP is a precursor to serotonin and can improve low mood and poor sleep, P5P (B6), methylcobalamine (B12), magnesium and folate (5-mthf) are essential for the production of serotonin.
- GABA: is supported by progesterone, valerian root, phenibut, L-theanine, tourine, and precursors P5P (B6), zinc, manganese, and magnesium. Many people who suffer from GABA-related issues could also be gluten-intolerant which may mount an auto-immune response to the enzyme responsible for making GABA in the brain. *GABA supplementation does not cross blood-brain barrier unless leaky brain is present.
- Dopamine: supported by testosterone in men & progesterone in men and women, high protein (beef, chicken fish, eggs, chocolate) provides phenylalanine or N-acetyl l-tyrosine, adequate iron, P5P (B6), folate (5-mthf) or green leafy vegetables.
- Acetylcholine (poor memory, difficulty with numbers, decreased creativity): supported by estrogen in women and testosterone in men, adequate choline in the diet including eggs, tofu, nuts and cream/milk. Fat-free diets and gallbladder disorders may cause deficiency of this neurotransmitter. Estrogen & testosterone improve receptor sensitivity with clear, focused thinking.
- DHA from Fish oil and other essential fatty acids like fish, nuts, seeds, olive oil and avocados are essential for brain health- but DHA, a component of fish oil, is specific for targeting the brain for improved memory.
- Thyroid Hormone impacts all neurotransmitter receptors in men and women. It is important to check for autoimmune antibodies if you are diagnosed with hypothyroid/hyperthyroid so you are able to support calming the immune response with Vit D, fish oil EPA/DHA and supporting proper thyroid function with nutrients like zine & selenium.
We can make an informed effort to control our health and, ultimately, our destiny, but many people don’t realize what they are experiencing as nagging symptoms may be brain inflammation and decline.
- Depression or anxiety
- Poor focus or memory
- Worsening constipation or digestive disorders
If you are a woman and want to continue the conversation, I invite you to join our new private Facebook group, MoreThanMenopause for weekly FB live with Q & A. What are you waiting for? We are excited to meet you!