Give your brain a boost by adding these hormone-balancing foods to your plate
Dementia is a scary topic, but it’s vital we don’t shy away from it as it could help prevent us developing symptoms later in life. While early onset dementia can happen, you don’t need to freak out if you occasionally misplace your keys or forget why you’ve walked into a room, as it’s incredibly rare that symptoms begin before the age of 65. Worldwide, women are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease (the most common form of dementia), and it’s estimated that 61 percent of people with the disease are women. Although it’s not fully understood why this is the case, one of the main theories is to do with the female sex hormone, oestrogen. So, is there anything we can do to protect ourselves, particularly as we approach menopause? We turned to some top nutritionists to find out what should be on our plates to help stave off dementia and keep our brains healthy.
What role does oestrogen play?
Although men and women produce oestrogen, as it’s the main female sex hormone, women have more of it, however, when we reach menopausal age, our bodies naturally stop producing as much of this chemical. You may be thinking that surely men have these lower levels too, but the male sex hormone, testosterone, is actually converted into oestrogen inside brain cells. This means that women who have been through menopause have lower levels of oestrogen in their brain than men of the same age. “As Alzheimer’s disease is more common in women after the menopause, it is possible that oestrogen plays a role in protecting the brain from the damage caused by Alzheimer’s, and that this protective effect is lost when oestrogen levels are decreased,” say the experts at The Alzheimer’s Society (alzheimers.org.uk).
Oestrogen and the brain
“Oestrogen affects the brain in several different ways, some of which researchers think could help explain how it could protect against Alzheimer’s,” say the experts at The Alzheimer’s Society. “For example, one study on rats has found that oestrogen helps to increase the number of connections in a particular area of the brain. This brain area, called the hippocampus, is important for memory and certain types of learning, which are both affected by Alzheimer’s disease. Oestrogen can also affect the way chemicals, such as serotonin, acetylcholine and dopamine, are used to send signals throughout the brain. Some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease are linked to problems with the acetylcholine signalling system, which could be connected to decreased oestrogen levels. Researchers think oestrogen may cause the body to make more antioxidants, protecting brain cells from damage. This could explain why the sudden drop in women’s oestrogen levels following menopause seems to make them more vulnerable to Alzheimer’s.”
Is there a way to overcome this drop in oestrogen?
“As we age, women need to consider the best ways to balance out hormones, as well as what we can do to look after our brains,” says Jenny Logan, nutritionist at Natures Aid (naturesaid.co.uk). Here are her top suggestions for what to add to your diet to help keep your mind healthy.
Oily fish tend to be the pink flesh fish – tuna, salmon, trout, sardines, and mackerel. These fish contain the omega 3 essential fatty acids EPA and DHA. Research has shown that DHA particularly can help to assist healthy brain function, as well as supporting a healthy heart and protecting our vision. On top of this, studies have suggested that consuming oily fish at least twice a week could help to reduce stress hormones and support hormonal balance. Salmon and tuna are also a good source of vitamin B6, which is known to help aid hormonal balance. For those who do not want to eat oily fish, fish oil supplements can help top up these essential fats.
Other healthy fats
Medium chain triglycerides, also known as MCT oil, are often advocated by fans of weight loss plans such as the keto diet. However, the interest in MCT oil was first sparked by stories of its potential benefits for the brain. MCTs are found in grass fed butter, coconut oil, and can also be purchased as a pure MCT oil. MCTs tend to be low in modern diets, particularly for those who typically choose low-fat alternatives, such as skimmed milk. However, research has shown that adding them back in, by including them in smoothies, coffee or simply using them to cook with, can help to provide valuable fuel for our brain, so much so that The Journal of Neurobiology of Aging found that MCT oils helped with memory problems.
Flax seeds provide additional essential fatty acids, as well as being high in fibre. Some studies also suggest that flax seeds may contain phytoestrogens, which are substances found in plants that have a similar make-up to our own oestrogen. Phytoestrogens can have the effect of ‘conning’ your body into thinking oestrogen levels are higher than they actually are, which can in some cases help to reduce hormonal symptoms. As well as that, ensuring a healthy intake of fibre by including flax seeds in the diet could also be helpful in appetite control.
Turmeric is an increasingly popular superfood widely recommended by nutritionists, and with good reason. This bright yellow herb can easily be added to recipes or beverages, and it has been shown to have many potential benefits. Firstly, it contains antioxidants, substances that protect our cells, even brain cells, against damage. It goes without saying we want to keep hold of as many of them as possible! Turmeric has also been shown to have anti-inflammatory and possible hormone balancing properties, with research showing that it could help to alleviate many menopausal symptoms.
Including foods like edamame beans and tofu in the diet has been shown to help reduce menopausal symptoms, including hot flushes. Soya first became of interest when it was noted that women following a traditional Eastern diet, with a lot of soya, tended to suffer more mild menopause symptoms. It’s been shown that this is because of the phytoestrogens (plant oestrogen) provided by soya. There were initially concerns that these plant oestrogens may increase risk for hormonally driven cancers, but this has now been debunked. In fact, it has been shown that consuming these phytoestrogenic foods could have a protective effect.