Mood foods every midlife woman needs to know about: Want a full night’s sleep, no hot flushes and bags of energy? A revolutionary new book reveals you should eat oranges, biscuits and potatoes
- A new book reveals how midlife symptoms can be overcome with food choices
- Eat a carbohydrate snack before bed to maintain sugar levels until the morning
- Citrus fruit can help curb hormone imbalances and boost oestrogen levels
As Bette Davis might well have said: ‘Your midlife years ain’t no place for cissies.’ As if the menopause wasn’t enough, with its hot flushes and mood swings, midlife stress and its attendant insomnia are also common.
This might be exacerbated more than ever on the first weekend after Dry January, which can see us saddled with a stonking midlife hangover, too.
But the solution is more obvious than you think, and in fact lies in your larder. According to a brilliant new book by nutritional therapist Charlotte Watts and food research academic Natalie Savona, every one of those agonising midlife symptoms can be overcome using nothing more than the power of the food on your plate.
The authors have spent years studying how food can affect our sleep, our hormones, our stress levels and even our mental health. The result? An age-defying diet, backed by hard science, that every midlife woman needs…
EAT TO BEAT… LACK OF SLEEP
A third of British adults — about 16 million people — struggle to fall asleep at night, tuna and a banana with dinner, as well as a biscuit by the bed, can help you sleep at night
Ideally, we’re asleep for roughly a third of our lives. This is the crucial time our bodies use to heal, renew, rebuild and detoxify, as well as let the immune system clear up the day’s invaders and create new antibodies.
Yet surveys on the nation’s sleep habits consistently find that a third of British adults — about 16 million people — struggle to fall asleep at night. Why?
Many of our body’s daily rhythms, including those that make you sleepy, are finely tuned mechanisms which depend on certain hormonal patterns, body chemicals and nutrients.
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At night time, for example, levels of the stress hormone cortisol should dip, calming your body and preparing it for sleep.
But if our cortisol levels are out of kilter, often due to stress or a diet high in stimulants or sugar, that natural sleepiness won’t occur. Instead we find ourselves tossing and turning all night.
Diet is a critical element of the puzzle. The following foods hold the key to a better night’s sleep…
Tuna and banana at supper
Humans produce serotonin from the amino acid tryptophan which is found in bananas, as well as chicken, milk, sunflower seeds, tuna, turkey and yoghurt
The hormone serotonin plays a central role in sleep-cycle regulation, so eating to boost our body’s supply of it is a great idea.
We produce serotonin from the amino acid tryptophan, so base a light supper around foods that contain it, such as bananas, chicken, milk, sunflower seeds, tuna, turkey and yoghurt.
Tomatoes, which are rich in sleep-inducing melatonin, are another good bet to include in your evening meal.
A biscuit by the bed
If we hit a blood sugar low before the morning, our body releases adrenaline, which is an internal alarm signalling that it needs to refuel. This is one of the reasons why we wake in the middle of the night beset by sudden fears and anxieties.
Eat a carbohydrate snack, such as a biscuit, before bed to maintain sugar levels until the morning
Eat a carbohydrate snack before bed to maintain sugar levels until the morning. Grandma’s ‘biscuit by the bedside’ is not the perfect nutritional solution, but it’s rooted in science.
Try a small flapjack or an oat-based biscuit if you really crave sugar, but healthier options such as rice cakes with a little honey, or a couple of dried dates, are better.
If you feel agitated in the evening or struggle to get to sleep, try eliminating foods that are high in tyramine.
Derived from the amino acid tyrosine, this increases the release of norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter which interferes with the nervous system’s ability to calm and settle in preparation for sleep.
WHAT TO EAT TO BEAT A HANGOVER
Forget the traditional morning-after fry-up: to survive alcohol’s effects, you need to support your liver and digestive system long-term:
- Fibre not only keeps your gut moving, it also binds onto toxins and escorts them out of the body, and is great for the liver. Eat kidney beans, brown rice, oats, rye, apples and plums.
- Foods rich in antioxidants help liver detoxification and heal the gut wall. Plant sources include beetroot, berries, garlic, grapes, green tea, kale, onions, peppers, prunes, tomatoes and watercress.
- Soothe an irritated stomach with mint tea or avocado. Alternatively, soak golden flax seeds and chia seeds overnight in enough water to cover them, then add them to smoothies or cereals — they produce a mucilage to coat and protect the gut wall.
- Research has shown that the herb milk thistle (200–300mg daily) can be used to support liver health. Look for a blend at a health food shop, which might include other herbs such as dandelion and artichoke.
- Other stomach-soothing and supportive supplements include turmeric as an anti-inflammatory, or the antioxidant glutathione, which helps to feed and heal gut cells.
Turmeric is an anti-inflammatory that helps heal gut cells
To steer clear of tyramine, you should essentially avoid eating anything aged, dried, fermented, salted, smoked or pickled for supper, such as cured meats and sauerkraut. Other foods which contain tyramine include chocolate, aubergine, potatoes, fish and red wine.
EAT TO BEAT…MENOPAUSE
Every woman’s experience of the menopause is unique to them, but mood swings, hot flushes and vaginal dryness are common.
Symptoms arise as a result of a push-pull between the pituitary gland in the brain and hormone levels in the body.
As progesterone and oestrogen levels drop, the pituitary gland senses that less of the hormones are available and sends signals to increase production, resulting in wild mood swings.
There are foods that can help, not by simply boosting or lowering hormone levels, but by regulating or modulating their effects. The key is balance.
Mushrooms used in traditional Chinese medicine, such as shiitake, reishi and maitake, contain a type of complex car-bohydrate called beta-glucan that balances blood sugar. It has also been shown to relieve menopausal fatigue. But many less exotic mushroom varieties contain naturally occurring chemicals which inhibit the enzyme aromatase, which is involved in oestrogen production.
Increase your intake if your symptoms tend towards irritability and anxiety.
These are signs of oestrogen dominance — where this hormone outweighs the level of progesterone — which is common as we approach the menopause.
Citrus to curb oestrogen
Other symptoms of hormonal imbalance and oestrogen dominance include mood swings and fluid retention. Citrus fruits contain the antioxidant D-limonene, which helps break down oestrogen in the liver. Just one portion of fruit a day — an orange, half a grapefruit, a couple of tangerines — is said to help reduce oestrogen dominance.
Much of the D-limonene is found in the peel, so blend the fruit whole and add it to smoothies. Make sure you buy organic pro-duce, since pesticides accumulate on the peel.
Citrus fruits contain the antioxidant D-limonene, which helps break down oestrogen in the liver. Just one portion of fruit a day — is said to help reduce oestrogen dominance
… Soy to boost it
On the other hand, if you are feeling sad or plagued by hot flushes, your oestrogen levels may be low. Plants containing substances known as phytoestrogens (‘phyto’ means ‘plant’) can help to regulate hormones and act as a weak oestrogen supplement for those lacking it.
In Asian countries such as Japan and China, phytoestrogens have long been associated with lower breast cancer risk.
They are notably derived from traditional soy products such as miso, tofu and tempeh.
Phytoestrogens are also found in citrus fruits, oats, fennel, alfalfa, liquorice, celery, flax seeds, beans, sesame seeds, peas, carrots, apples and pears.
Phytoestrogens can help to regulate hormones and act as a weak oestrogen supplement. They are notably derived from traditional soy products such as miso, tofu and tempeh
EAT TO BEAT…STRESS
One of the first body mechanisms to fall prey to prolonged stress is blood sugar balance. When blood sugar levels drop, there are only a few ways to raise them — food, stimulants or stress hormones from the adrenal glands.
If we don’t eat in response to the falling levels, we can become accustomed to running on adrenaline and lose hunger signals. For example, if we frequently skip breakfast and charge out of the door in a high-stress state, it can start to feel ‘normal’ to energise ourselves via stress, but that will eventually wear us out and keep our brains highly agitated. It’s a vicious circle.
And so is the alternative — giving in to the craving for sugar stimulated by the stress response.
A lack of willpower — and weight gain — only adds to the stress by making us feel guilty or ashamed. Diet can help to break the cycle by soothing a stressed mind.
If we don’t eat in response to the falling levels of blood sugar, we can become accustomed to running on adrenaline and lose hunger signals
Celery and lettuce contain the chemical apigenin, which activates the soothing parasympathetic tone of the nervous system.
Celery also contains high levels of the mineral potassium, which is needed to ease the stress response. Add it to soups and stews to make particularly reassuring comfort food.
Celery and lettuce contain the chemical apigenin, which activates the soothing parasympathetic tone of the nervous system
Get a magnesium boost
There is no more important nutrient to mention in the face of modern stress than magnesium.
The stress response uses magnesium up quickly as it works to create energy and get the heart pumping faster and the muscles ready for ‘fight or flight’.
But magnesium is also needed by the calming parasympathetic nervous system, so if stress depletes our stores, calming down can be difficult. We then get caught in a state of constant alert.
Good magnesium food sources include green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, fish, carrots, sweet potato, avocado, cauliflower, the sesame dip tahini, parsley, soy, whole grains and lentils.
But even if you’re eating plenty of these foods, if you feel under prolonged stress, it’s safe to supplement with extra magnesium from your health food store.
There is no more important nutrient to mention in the face of modern stress than magnesium — which is found in sweet potatoes and avocados
Don’t underestimate the calming effect of something hot to eat or drink. Holding mugs or bowls of warm liquids between our hands has been proven to have a soothing effect, and has even been shown to alleviate feelings of loneliness. Try herbal teas or steaming soups or stew with plenty of veg.
EAT TO BEAT… WINTER BLUES
Those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, often overeat or binge as a form of self-medication.
They crave carbohydrate-rich foods containing starch and sugar, as that’s what triggers the production of the mood-lifting neurotransmitter serotonin.
Most SAD sufferers experience extreme tiredness, sleep more than usual, and have a significant increase in appetite — and therefore weight — during the winter months. But it’s not just those with SAD. We all reach for more starchy foods — bread, pasta, cereal, cakes — in the colder months to boost energy and alleviate the winter blues.
There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as we also consider the fats and protein we need.
It’s the sugary, refined foods such as biscuits, doughnuts and sweets that we need to avoid. Yes, they deliver an instant hit of energy, but that’s caused by a spike in blood sugar that, in the end, leads to more cravings and inevitable weight gain.
Most SAD sufferers experience extreme tiredness, sleep more than usual, and have a significant increase in appetite — and therefore weight — during the winter months (stock image)
Use baked or sweet potatoes to satisfy the need for starch and wean yourself off that mid-afternoon chocolate bar.
Opt for a protein-rich topping — chicken, smoked salmon, hummus, goats’ cheese — to help temper the sugar rush caused by the potato itself. Eating the fibrous skin helps to reduce this, too.
Oily fish for vitamin D
Vitamin D is a key mood nutrient, and also crucial for bone health and a well-functioning immune system.
Low levels are associated with low serotonin, which our body uses up faster in the winter.
Increase your intake of vitamin D-rich oily fish such as mackerel, salmon, trout and herring. Or go to work on an egg — one large boiled egg contains approximately 10 per cent of your daily recommended vitamin D intake.
An orange a day
So reaching for an orange (or an apple, which comes a close second) is ideal when sugar cravings first hit
Citrus fruits make one of the best sweet treats, since their pith contains a satisfying amount of fibre.
Oranges were the highest-ranked fruit on the ‘satiety index’ of 38 foods compiled by Australian researchers, in order of how full they left people feeling for the longest time after eating.
Oranges were ranked almost as high as porridge and higher than eggs, bread, pasta and rice.
They were an astonishing three to four times better at satisfying hunger than pastries, cakes and doughnuts.
So reaching for an orange (or an apple, which comes a close second) is ideal when sugar cravings first hit. If they then persist, you can reassess. However, having this fruit, and allowing yourself some time to feel the satisfaction, can be a good strategy when it comes to unravelling the vicious cycle of cravings.
- Good Mood Food: Unlock The Power Of Diet To Think And Feel Well, by Charlotte Watts with Natalie Savona, is out now.
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