Nutritionist Karen Newby on brain-boosting foods

We need to feed our brain, not just our body, in menopause! The psychological symptoms of menopause can often manifest way before a lot of the physical symptoms and can include brain fog, anxiety, low mood and a lack of motivation.

The symptoms are due to the far-reaching effects of oestrogen and progesterone which include effects on our brain chemistry. Oestrogen helps to support production of our ‘happiness neurochemical’ serotonin,[i] most of which is made in the gut,[ii] so gut health is always a first port of call for me in supporting anyone with low mood. Oestrogen is also linked to dopamine, which is not only related to reward, but also to motivation and pleasure, which explains these feelings of lack of interest in things we used to get a lot of pleasure from.

Progesterone is also called the ‘everything will be OK hormone’ so when we stop ovulating so frequently and progesterone is likely to be disrupted we can start to feel low. Progesterone is intimately connected to GABA, our calming neurotransmitter, and is indicated as one of the reasons for menopause anxiety.[iii]

Many of us have to deal with the dreaded foggy head. We can also start to forget people’s names or why we walked into a room….or completely forget what we were talking about mid-sentence! However all is not lost as findings from the longitudinal SWAN study state that this menopause blip doesn’t affect our ability for lifelong learning and that cognitive ageing might indeed be malleable.[iv]

I’m very much about what we can add in not necessarily take out of our diet to help us at menopause. For most of us our diets aren’t ‘bad’  – they’re not full of fried foods and takeaways – but they are often low in micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids and proteins which are essential brain boosting foods too.  So how do we feed our brain? Here are some therapeutic foods to increase:

  • Our brains are made up of 60 per cent fat, so eat oily fish at least two or three times a week. Opt for small fish such as mackerel, trout or salmon to minimize mercury. Plus nuts (interesting how walnuts look like the brain!), seeds and linseed oil.
  • Phytoestrogens can help, which have been shown in studies to improve memory.[v] From tofu, tempeh, soya, linseed, nuts, apples, fennel, celery, parsley, alfalfa, pulses, beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas, green vegetables, carrots, red peppers, broccoli and cabbage, sage and red clover.
  • Phosphatidylcholine is good for the memory neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and phosphatidylserine helps brain-cell communication. Both are found in egg yolk, tofu, oily fish, beef, sardines and fatty cheese.
  • Phenylalanine converts to tyrosine for alertness, attention and focus: eat pumpkin seeds, Parmesan, soya beans, lean beef, chicken, salmon, mackerel, cod, eggs, pinto beans.
  • B vitamins… or memory vitamins: found in eggs, cereals, brown rice, fish, chicken, asparagus and dark-green vegetables.
  • Amino acids, especially tryptophan and glutamine, which is the precursor of GABA, a calming neurotransmitter: all these are found in lean meat, poultry, nuts, seeds and avocado.
  • L-theanine is an amino acid found in green tea (opt for decaf) that is traditionally used to enhance relaxation and improve concentration.
  • Vitamin C is a needed for good circulation and is a powerful antioxidant that helps fight off the free radicals that can damage brain cells. Plus vitamin C supports brain health as we age: get it in citrus fruits, parsley, greens.
  • Antioxidants such as flavonoids to protect the brain: from artichoke, basil, berries, celery, citrus fruits, parsley and turmeric.
  • Eat rosemary for remembrance.


Then I recommend supporting our gut which is often referred to as our second brain.[vi] The easiest wat to do this it to aim for thirty-plus unique plants per week. If you don’t have many plants in your diet at the moment then increase them slowly as suddenly eating lots of plant based fibre can cause bloating! Cooked over raw is easier to digest too. These can include herbs, spices, fruit, vegetables, pulses, nuts, seeds and gluten free grains. Also be wary of how gluten affects your concentration. We are all individual, but gluten and dairy can have an opioid-like effect on the brain.

Brain-boosting lifestyle hacks

  • Keep hydrated – dehydration is linked to drops in memory and concentration.
  • Buy the best food you can afford and take time to enjoy it.
  • Channel food as love. Warm, grounding food to help take energy out of the head and into the digestive system – this is an Ayurvedic remedy. Eat protein-rich broths, warm salads over raw, curries and tagines.
  • Keep moving to help circulation and blood flow to the brain.
  • Be in nature more. Across multiple studies, researchers have found a fascinating link between being in nature and an improved mood and increased life satisfaction.[vii]


[i] Hudon Thibeault, A.A., Sanderson, J.T., Vaillancourt, C., ‘Serotonin-estrogen interactions: What can we learn from pregnancy?’, Biochimie (Jun 2019), 161:88–108; ISSN 0300-9084;

[ii] Banskota, S., Ghia, J.E., Khan, W.I., ‘Serotonin in the gut: Blessing or a curse?’, Biochimie (Jun 2019), 161:56–64; doi: 10.1016/j.biochi.2018.06.008; Epub 14 Jun 2018; PMID: 29909048

[iii] Sovijit, W.N., Sovijit, W.E., Pu, S. et al., ‘Ovarian progesterone suppresses depression and anxiety-like behaviors by increasing the Lactobacillus population of gut microbiota in ovariectomized mice’, Neurosci Res (22 Apr 2019), S0168-0102(19)30142-7; doi: 10.1016/j.neures.2019.04.005; Epub: ahead of print; PMID: 31022413

[iv] Karlamangla, A.S., Lachman, M.E., Han, W. et al., ‘Evidence for Cognitive Aging in Midlife Women: Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation’, PLoS One (3 Jan 2017),12(1):e0169008; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0169008; PMID: 28045986; PMCID: PMC5207430

[v] Sumien, N., Chaudhari, K., Sidhu, A., Forster, M.J., ‘Does phytoestrogen supplementation affect cognition differentially in males and females?’, Brain Res (13 Jun 2013), 1514:123-7; doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2013.02.013; Epub 13 Feb 2013; PMID: 23415935; PMCID: PMC3677816

[vi] Foster, J.A., McVey Neufeld, K.A., ‘Gut–brain axis: how the microbiome influences anxiety and depression.’, Trends Neurosci (May 2013), 36(5):305–12; doi: 10.1016/j.tins.2013.01.005; Epub 4 Feb 2013; PMID: 23384445

[vii] Bowler, D.E., Buyung-Ali, L.M., Knight, T.M., Pullin, A.S., ‘A systematic review of evidence for the added benefits to health of exposure to natural environments’, BMC Public Health (2010)

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