Why do women experience postmenopausal depression?
The menopausal transition may bring up a variety of emotions, many of which can affect a woman’s mood and mental health for many years. Some may struggle with the sense of loss at no longer being fertile, alternatively there could be anxiety over what will happen upon retirement, or perhaps concerns about a growing family and the arrival of grandchildren. Some women go through difficulties in their relationship following the menopause, particularly if they have experienced a drop in libido, which is common at this time. Additionally, many women develop concerns over changing body shapes, or gain symptoms such as vaginal dryness; which similarly may impact upon your sex life.
Postmenopausal women are also at a greater risk of developing insomnia, in part due to hot flashes, which may continue for many years and affect sleep. In one study, up to 30% of postmenopausal women reported getting a good night’s sleep only a few nights per month. Insomnia is a major risk factor for depression, and was found to increase your chances of experiencing depression by up to 3 times.
There are also other physiological changes occurring which may put you at a greater risk of depression. These include the hormonal changes which occurred during menopause, which may still be continuing despite not having had a period for many years. Oestrogen levels may continue to decline after menopause, and this drop may affect your mood, due to the number of oestrogen receptors based in the areas of the brain involved in emotion. Oestrogen also blocks the breakdown of serotonin, which is our ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter, as well as affecting endorphin release (the group of chemicals associated with stress management and emotions).
Which natural remedies may help with postmenopausal depression?
Natural remedies to support those with postmenopausal depression need to focus on the underlying chemical changes which may be happening during this stage of life, alongside lifestyle and dietary choices which may help you to manage any emotional events going on at this time. These may include:
Blood sugar balance and chromium
If we skip meals, drink too much caffeine, and eat too much sugar and refined white carbohydrates, we’re more likely to experience blood sugar swings. Symptoms of blood sugar imbalance include anxiety, low mood or mood swings, crying spells, and difficulty sleeping. Choosing protein-rich meals that include some fibrous wholegrains, alongside plenty of vegetables, may help to alleviate this. You could also consider a chromium supplement, around 200mcg per day, which can help to stabilise blood sugar through its supportive effect on the body’s insulin function.
Good sleep habits
Establishing a good bedtime routine is crucial in helping your body get into the right state for sleep. Avoid screens, tablets, and phones in the bedroom: the blue light may affect your melatonin levels, which are needed for a good night’s sleep. Also, winding down in the evening with a warm bath, perhaps with a few drops of lavender and some Epsom salts that help support magnesium levels, can aid relaxation. Keep the lights dim in the house, and have a snack around 30 minutes before bedtime: including a little bit of protein and slow-releasing carbs can help to keep blood sugar balanced overnight, and also support serotonin production. Good choices, for example, would be an oatcake with peanut butter, a small bowl of porridge with chopped banana, natural yoghurt, warm almond milk and some cinnamon, or a piece of wholegrain toast with hummus, cottage cheese, or peanut butter. You could also try a calming herbal tea that contains hops, such as Passiflora or Valerian.
Naturally support serotonin levels
A number of natural remedies may help to support serotonin levels, your ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitter. The bedtime snacks mentioned above are rich in tryptophan: an amino acid which helps to support serotonin production. You could also try 5-HTP as a supplement, which can also help to support the production of this important neurotransmitter. B vitamins are also important for serotonin production and your brain health: choose a comprehensive B complex to take daily.
St John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
A well-known remedy for depression, St John’s Wort has been found to be as effective for mild to moderate depression as tricyclic antidepressants (one of the oldest classes of antidepressants, that are still prescribed today), and often with less side effects. Do check with your doctor if you are already taking medication before starting a herbal preparation such as St John’s Wort, and only take the recommended dose of whichever preparation you buy – these are usually in capsule, or tincture form.
Increase your omega-3 fat intake
Your brain is made from 60% fat, and much of this is omega-3 essential fat, which your body needs to get from your diet. Countless studies have shown a link between the importance of omega-3 fatty acids, especially one that is called ‘EPA’, in reducing the symptoms and risks of depression. Including plenty of oily fish (trout, salmon, sardines, and mackerel) in your diet – around two to three times per week is ideal, as well as a daily portion of green leafy veg, and a tablespoon of mixed seeds – can help to support this, too. You may also further support your omega-3 intake from a good quality fish oil supplement that contains both EPA and DHA (another essential omega-3 fatty acid). A therapeutic amount of EPA would be around 1,000mg.
A wonderful muscle relaxant, magnesium can be useful for helping to relieve tension, and in supporting sleep. You can either take it as a supplement in the form of magnesium citrate or glycinate, or by using magnesium salts in your bath, or as magnesium oil to absorb through the skin. Good magnesium sources in food include nuts, seeds, fish and, green ‘leafy’ vegetables – a typical dietary example can include 3 portions of greens, a tablespoon of seeds, and 100mg of magnesium citrate as a supplement per day.
Exercise for endorphins
Your endorphins are a group of brain chemicals that are associated with pain relief, mood, and stress management. Research has shown that regular exercise helps to stimulate endorphin release, which is why it can be helpful in managing depression. After menopause, it can be a good idea to choose some weight-bearing exercises: this may help to support your bone density. Examples include: walking, yoga, Pilates, jogging, or gym work. Alternatively, if it’s a nice day, get out in the open air to top up your vitamin D levels from the sun – another key nutrient to support your brain health.
From Catherine Jeans
Catherine Jeans DipION mBANT CNHC is a nutritional therapist and founder of The Family Nutrition Expert. She has a special interest in women’s health, supporting hormonal balance and optimal wellbeing in women of all ages, through the use of food, nutrition and functional health.