"Nourish your mental wellness."
As a clinical nutritionist, I work with people to support them in living with optimal health. When referring to optimal health this also includes our mental health, or what I like to call our ‘mental wellness’. This is a topic I am currently completing my PhD in and one that I am very passionate about.
"Everything in the body is interlinked."
Balanced hormones play a powerful role in a woman's entire body systems, impacting mood, energy, cravings and weight. It is important to remember that we can’t look at any aspect of health independently. At BePure we utilise scientific, holistic health, that includes a systems biology approach, which means we look at the person as a whole. Everything in the body is interlinked. This includes how we feel mentally and emotionally, and once again our hormones do have an important part to play.
And because it is Mental Health Awareness Week, I would like to take this opportunity to share the connection between hormones and ‘mental wellness’.
What is the relationship between our hormones and mood?
There is a strong relationship between women’s sex hormones, oestrogen and progesterone, and levels of serotonin, GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid) and dopamine. Serotonin, GABA and dopamine are not technically hormones, they are neurotransmitters. But like hormones, they send chemical messengers all over the body. Our hormones impact our neurotransmitter levels, therefore if your hormones are out of balance, your neurotransmitter levels will have a flow-on effect on your mood. We have worked with many clients at the BePure Clinic to support people with their anxiety and other mood imbalances by working on regulating their sex hormones as one part of working towards optimal health.
Serotonin is responsible for keeping us happy and calm and studies show that low levels of serotonin are linked with common mental health issues such as depression. GABA then works alongside serotonin, as an inhibitor to slow things down in our brain and elicit calmness.
Progesterone is the key to mood stability
The most important sex hormone for women when it comes to mood is progesterone. Progesterone has a vital role in fertility, but it has a secondary role in mood regulation. It is your important restorative and anti-anxiety hormone.
It is vital that we have adequate levels of progesterone for our neurotransmitters to function. Progesterone exerts an anti-anxiety effect by acting on GABA receptors in the brain, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that aids in relaxation and sleep. It is important we nurture our progesterone levels so GABA can function.
Low progesterone also plays a role in PMS symptoms, such as irritability and mood swings. Progesterone should be highest in the second half of your menstrual cycle, however, for a lot of women, this is not the case. This is due to a process that is known as the pregnenolone steal, our body favours making cortisol over progesterone.
Why would we have low progesterone?
The simple answer is stress. The modern world and its expectations are not conducive to women producing adequate levels of progesterone. The raw materials for our stress hormones and progesterone are the same. This means if our body perceives stress (this may be in the form of a deadline or financial stress), the body will often use the raw materials to produce cortisol (our main stress hormone) rather than progesterone. If our body is constantly choosing to make cortisol, this results in low progesterone levels.
Ways to boost progesterone levels
1. Take time to breathe
Take 10 mins twice a day to bring your attention to your breathing. This might be alongside your morning meditation or simply taking some time to just deep breathe. Focus on breathing right into your belly. Imagine your belly is a balloon inflating and deflating. Breathing into your belly ensures you are breathing deeply, which is the best way to send a strong signal to the nervous system that you are relaxed. Even better, if you can do this 10 mins of belly breathing in what we call the ‘legs up the wall’ position, that will hugely reduce perceived stress in the body.
2. Ensure you have adequate nutrient levels
Nutrients provide the raw materials to produce our hormones and neurotransmitters. Ensure you are getting adequate vitamin C and omega 3 fatty acids to optimise progesterone production. The research is strong around omega-3 and its mood-boosting properties. Vitamin D is required for our body to naturally convert tryptophan into our happy neurotransmitter serotonin.
3. Learn to say no
Take the pressure off yourself by saying no - don't be shy about saying no if it supports you to slow down and focus on resting and restoring.
4. Exercise for you
Choose the right exercise for you. If you are under stress in your everyday life, it is unlikely that you will benefit from extra stress in the form of exercise. A more restorative, slower paced exercise is going to suit you better, such as a walk in nature or yin yoga.
5. Eat right for you
Eat foods that enhance your serotonin or happy hormone levels. These include foods containing vitamin D such as salmon, sardines and eggs. Get out in the sunshine or use a nutritional supplement to boost levels further. Gentle carbohydrates such as kumara are important for our neurotransmitter, GABA. A great recipe that includes all of these is the BePure Poached Eggs with Kumara and Kale Rosti.
A little more on my PhD
As this blog post talks directly to the work I’m completing as part of my PhD, I wanted to take the opportunity to share the exciting developments I’m making.
I’m currently completing my PhD on the relationship between nutrition, metabolomics and mental health at Canterbury University under Professor Julia Rucklidge. Metabolomics is the scientific study of metabolites; which are the chemical products of the reactions that take place in the body.
I’m particularly looking at a metabolite in the urine that binds zinc and B6. The binding capacity of this metabolite means that it leaves people heavily deficient in zinc and B6. This deficiency often leads to health issues, in particular, increased anxiety. Alongside this study, my PhD is giving me an opportunity to do a human treatment trial. I’m comparing supplementation of B6 and zinc vs. placebo on 120 subjects.
Mental wellness is an important part of the bigger picture of health. Our mind impacts how we operate and requires nurturing too. While the modern day environment presents stressors that can be out of our control, we can look at our diet and lifestyle choices to nourish our bodies and our minds to optimal health. Eating nutrient-dense foods to nourish our hormones and support our neurotransmitters or ‘happy hormones’ to regulate mood is a step you can take towards a happy, healthier you.