Annabel’s post a couple of weeks ago about how interrupted sleep may benefit our brains struck a chord with so many readers who experience broken nights. Sleep becomes increasingly elusive as we age, so the idea that night waking benefits cognition is extremely reassuring.
Our reproductive hormones can shoulder some of the blame for this age-related sleep disturbance. The hormone progesterone is particularly linked to sleep, and it dwindles to nothing during the menopause transition. Progesterone has a calming effect and increases production of a neurotransmitter, gamma-aminobutyric acid (know by the acronym GABA), which helps us sleep by calming neural activity. Lower levels of progesterone, and GABA, can lead to symptoms like anxiety and disturbed sleep, particularly frequent waking. Research by the University of Florida, published a couple of years ago, revealed that levels of GABA decline naturally with age for everyone, so this isn’t just an issue for post-menopausal women.
I hadn’t heard of GABA until I started researching The Power Decade, but I now understand its vital role. One recent study claimed, ‘The clinical significance of GABA cannot be underestimated’. This is why: GABA works by quietening the constant communication between our cells, lessening the ‘noise’ that keeps us alert, awake and – potentially – anxious. People who suffer depression, brain fog and insomnia may have less GABA in their brains.
Getting more GABA
GABA supplements are available – and I’ve even seen it in a ‘feelgood non-alcoholic drink’ – but the body is able to produce it naturally. Beneficial bacteria in the gut, like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, produce GABA. Keeping these bacteria happy with fermented foods like kimchi, kefir, kombucha and tempeh is one way to work towards a plentiful supply of GABA. Green leafy vegetables, soy beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, buckwheat, peas, brown rice and sweet potatoes also help. The brain uses another neurotransmitter, glutamate, to create GABA, so we need to ensure we’re getting enough glutamate precursors (building blocks the body uses to make it). We can find these in exactly the same places we get our protein – meat, fish, eggs, dairy and beans/pulses. Please make sure you’re getting enough protein!
Moving for GABA
Food isn’t the only way to get more GABA, aerobic exercise also ramps up production. It doesn’t matter what the intensity is, just something that’s do-able for you. And research has shown that the beneficial effects on mood and sleep from yoga result from GABA activation. One study compared the effects of yoga and walking on mood, anxiety and GABA levels in the brain. Study participants were randomly assigned an hour of yoga, or walking, three times a week. After three months, the yogis reported greater improvement in mood, and lower anxiety, than the walkers. Scans revealed that they also had more GABA in their brains. Now we love a good walk here at the Age-Well Project, so we’re surprised to find anything trumps a satisfying yomp in the feelgood stakes! What makes you feel better, yoga or walking? Or do you love both? Let us know in the comments.
CATCH UP WITH THE ONLINE LAUNCH PARTY FOR THE POWER DECADE
Annabel and I hosted an Age-Well conversation about my new book The Power Decade: How to Thrive after Menopause and shared tips on good health post-menopause. You can catch up with the recording here:
FAVOURITE EASTER RECIPES FROM THE BLOG
As is customary at this time of year, I’m sharing some of our favourite Easter-time recipes from the archives – chocolate, eggs and lamb, of course. Also some hearty salads to suit changeable weather, and a couple of picnic-ish recipes for the optimists.