As far as menopausal symptoms go, experiencing feelings of depression is quite common: in fact, it has been found that up to 80% of menopausal women may develop mild depressive symptoms. As well as being affected by hormonal changes, emotional strain wrought by reaching this new stage of life can bring on feelings of anxiety, sadness, and stress.
Whilst in some cases, depending on the severity of your symptoms, you should always consult your GP for advice, there are ways you can manage mild-moderate depressive symptoms through changes to nutrition and lifestyle. As it turns out, a recent survey by Healthspan’s Menopause Advice found that of 87% of menopausal women in the UK preferred to treat their symptoms naturally. Careful nutritional choices can have a pronounced effect on your health, and work to alleviate discomfort and sadness brought on by menopause.
What is menopausal depression?
Whilst not every woman will experience depression as a symptom of menopause, changing levels of oestrogen, the female sex hormone, during menopause are likely to have an impact on our mood, amongst many other things. When we approach menopause, our levels of oestrogen slowly decline, which in turn brings up the concentration of neurotransmitters in the brain that are commonly associated with mood and depression. As oestrogen levels drop, so do too the neurotransmitters that work to prevent us from being clinically depressed.
And then, of course, there are the emotional changes linked to this new stage of life that may set off sadness or anxiety: the loss of fertility, ideas of ‘becoming old’, or having your children move out of home, for instance. As well as the value of therapy, or talking about your feelings with someone you love and trust, there are also nutritional changes you can make to help manage your symptoms, and keep you feeling happy and healthy.
Natural ways to help
St. John’s Wort
St. John’s Wort is actually a herbal medicine that has been compared to antidepressants in terms of effectiveness, and contains the active ingredient hypercin, which may treat depression. The herb is said to work similarly to antidepressants, in its effect on levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, but with far fewer side effects. St. John’s Wort is often used to treat mild to moderate depression, mild anxiety, and sleeping problems.
You can take St. John’s Wort in tablet or capsule form, or take it as a tea. Whilst in the UK it is possible to buy the herb over the counter, in many European countries you will need a prescription. In the US, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved its use as a prescription medicine for depression. There have been many studies into the effectiveness and dangers of St. John’s Wort in managing symptoms of depression, some which have reported benefits, and others which have been inconclusive. The most reliable evidence to date however found that for people with mild-moderate depression, the herb is more effective than a placebo, and has the same impact as a standard antidepressant, minus the side-effects.
There are certain medications however that you should not take St. John’s Wort in conjunction with, so it’s wise to check with your GP for any contraindications to existing medicine you may be taking before you consider taking it to treat your symptoms.
Changes to hormone levels during menopause can also impact your ability to get to sleep, which, in turn, exacerbates existing feelings of stress and anxiety. Progesterone, another female sex hormone that helps to balance oestrogen levels, also helps us get to sleep, and is a natural antidepressant. Changing progesterone levels during menopause can bring on imbalances in mood, or even insomnia. Ginseng is a herb that contains ‘adaptogens’, which are natural substances that can increase our resistance to stress, and help the body adapt to it. This helps to stabilise mood, and, assist in helping us to get to sleep. Ginseng has also been shown to protect the adrenal glands— the body’s chief organs for dealing with stress— by increasing their capacity to withstand prolonged stress.
Ginseng also can increase neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine, which are known as the brain’s ‘feel good’ chemicals, and so can work to improve your overall mood, increase vitality, concentration, and ability to sleep. It is reported to produce an oestrogen-like effect, which may recoup hormone imbalances caused by menopause. You should be careful with ginseng if you have high blood pressure, and should seek medical advice if you’re taking any existing medication.
Commonly referred to as the ‘stress’ vitamins, B vitamins, including folic acid, vitamin B12, niacin, and thiamine can help manage symptoms of stress and anxiety during menopause. In fact, these sorts of symptoms are, in some cases, actually indicative of a vitamin B deficiency. Low levels of vitamin B12 have been found in studies of patients with depression, whilst the vitamin plays a role in producing brain chemicals that impact mood, and other functions.
Also responsible for how your body reacts to stress, your nervous system relies on B vitamins for optimal function: particularly B12, B1 and B3. Vitamins B6 and B12 play key roles in the production of serotonin, whilst B vitamins, particularly B5, assist your adrenal glands in conversion and production of hormones. When you go through menopause, your adrenal glands are important sites for the production of sex hormones, particularly considering the gradual decline in their production by your ovaries.
Whilst menopausal stress is a key source of anxiety for many women, it is important that you’re aware of what is going on inside your body during this time, and of choices you can make to maintain your health. If you experience prolonged or consistent feelings of depression, self-harm, or even suicide, you should seek help from your GP. Whilst the herbs mentioned may optimise your health, and alleviate mild-moderate depressive symptoms, they are not a substitute for clinical care where it is required.