Nutrition for Your Brain’s Health
One in three individuals can go into remission from depression with the addition of nutritional counselling to standard psychological and medical care1. This is almost unbelievable. Yet food is only now being recognized as having healing powers, not just in a physical sense, but in mental wellbeing.
Superfoods for the Mind?
So what are the “superfoods” that have this power? There is no such thing as a superfood that has all the nutrients needed for health. But the combination of assorted foods can pack a punch when it comes to your brain’s health2. The two food areas that stand out in suicide prevention are vegetables and healthy fats found in oils, fish and nuts3,4. So your parents were correct when they said: “eat your veggies”. These staples are eaten in abundance in an area of the world known for healthy diets: the breathtaking and beautiful Mediterranean2.
So what are the nutrients in these foods that can help your mood?
Omega-3 fatty acids
This mineral is abundantly found in meats, nuts, seeds and legumes. It is also in whole grains and some vegetables like cooked spinach and broccoli. Iron carries oxygen to our brains. It is astonishing that 32% of anxiety sufferers and 22% of individuals with depression have inadequate iron stores7.
This vitamin is essential for growth and development but also participates in brain health. It helps with the development of serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain, linked to mood. Fruits, vegetables, (especially the leafy greens), and lentils are rich in folate 8, 9.
Specific Amino Acids like Tryptophan
You may have heard of the amino acid tryptophan as it is part of the protein found in turkey. Some say it can make you sleepy and calm after a big meal. But actually it is more likely the excitement of the day of eating with friends and family that makes you snooze. But tryptophan does play a role in neurotransmitter development which is linked to your emotional health5.
This is really bugging me
The Mediterranean Diet also contains fermented cheeses that can modify your gut bacteria (your microbiome). If you guessed that these minuscule microbes play a role in neurotransmitter production, e.g. serotonin in the brain, you would be correct10.
Mood Destroyer Foods
- Sugar — If your blood sugars are rocking and rolling from large intakes of sugar, this can cause havoc to your mood11.
- Lack of water — Even before you know you are dehydrated, a decrease in body water can affect psychological health. So fill up that water bottle5.
- Lack of balance — skipping meals or unbalanced meals messes with mood. Our brains need food all day long for optimal function5.
Easier said than done
It can be challenging to prepare wholesome foods when you are experiencing a rough day. Here are some tips to help:
- Always have healthy fats on hand such as canned fish, olive oil and nuts. Dipping bread into a mixture of olive oil and balsamic vinegar is an uncomplicated way to enjoy healthy fats.
- Buy a fresh veggie tray or frozen bags of veggies. Of course, cutting up colourful veggies yourself is ideal but we don’t always have the gumption to do it. Thus, plan ahead for those times you just want to soak in the tub.
- Sensational Smoothies-you can drop so much goodness into a blender to consume your healthy nutrients e.g. ground flaxseed for omega-3, tofu for extra protein, spinach for iron and folate, etc. Tip to putting in the spinach: cook the spinach in water briefly to release the iron. Place in ice cube trays and freeze. Just pop one in when you blend the smoothie.
- Outstanding Oatmeal- Pour some boiled water over oats and mix in different combos for superior mental health e.g. dried and fresh fruits, ground flax seed, nuts and of course some cinnamon to add sweetness.
My personal favourite is pecans, fresh blueberries and cinnamon.
A Reason to Smile
Eating balanced, nutritious meals may seem like tedious and archaic advice. Yet, this wisdom is so crucial in physical well-being, and perhaps even more so, in psychological health. Add these “superfoods” gradually into your daily diet, and step by step, you can appreciate the brainy benefits of a healthy diet.
Written by Dr. Linda Gillis, Registered Dietitian and Nutrition Professor, at Centre for Hospitality and Culinary Arts, George Brown College.
References for Information
- Jacka, N. (2017) A randomized controlled trial of dietary improvement for adults with major depression (the ‘SMILES’ trial). BioMed Central Medicine, 15(23), DOI 10.1186/s12916-017-0791-y.
- Rahe, C. (2014) Dietary patterns and the risk of depression in adults: a systematicreview of observational studies, European Journal of Nutrition, 53, 997-1013.
- Neumark-Sztainer, D. (1996). Correlates of inadequate fruit and vegetable consumption among adolescents. Preventative Medicine, 25(5), 497-505.
- Zhang, J. (2005). How does a suicide attempter eat differently than others? Comparison of macronutrient intakes. Nutrition, 21(6), 711-717.
- The Association of UK Dietitians. (April 2019) Depression and diet. Downloaded from https://bda.uk.com/foodfacts.
- Parletta, N. et. al. (2013) Nutritional modulation of cognitive function and mental health. Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry. 24:725-743.
- Noorazer. S. (2015). Relationship between severity of depression symptoms and iron deficiency anemia in women with major depressive disorder. Journal of Analytic Research and Clinical Medicine, 3(4):219-214.
- Rahe, C. (2014) Dietary patterns and the risk of depression in adults: a systematic review of observational studies, European Journal of Nutrition, 53, 997-1013.
- Miller, AL. (2008). The methylation neurotransmitter, and atitioxidant connections between folate and depression. Alternative Medicine Reviews. 13(3):216-226.
- Owen, L. & Corfe. B. (2017). The role of diet and nutrition on mental health and wellbeing. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 76,425-426.
- Ahmed, S. (2013). Sugar addiction: pushing the drug-sugar analogy to the limit. Current Opinions in Clinical Nutrition, 16(4):435-539.
- Nezon, J. (n.d.). Rainbow Plate: Healthy eating made simple. Downloaded from https://www.rainbowplate.com/.