The link between physical health and what we eat is well understood, but did you know that what you eat has a huge impact on your mood and how you feel?
Research has linked diets high in nutrients to a reduced risk of depression, but it was only recently that an Australian clinical trial actually demonstrated that participants on a Mediterranean style diet were more likely to be in remission from their depressive symptoms and anxiety than those who received social support but kept the same low fibre, fruits, vegetables and protein and high sweet, salty and processed foods.
Managing anxiety, stress, depression and other mood disorders is complex, and there’s no one-size-fits all solution, but a Mediterranean style diet featuring plenty of whole, natural foods is a great way to start and will also help to balance your blood sugar levels. Loss of blood sugar balance has a clear link to stress, anxiety and depression. 50% of low mood is down to blood sugar imbalances. Learning how to become a master of your blood sugar balance is the secret to having more energy, a better mood and controlling your weight – and losing it if you need to. Feeling more confident about the way you look is an excellent way to boost feelings of self-worth.
Every time you eat, you have an opportunity to feed your brain with nutrient dense food.
Let’s start with the key to your mood and brain function - fat
The dry weight of our brain is 60% fat - so it’s not surprising that we depend on a daily intake of essential fats.
Few of us get enough omega-3 fats in our diet, and these are key to our mood and brain function. In particular eicosapentaenoic acid acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) – long-chain omega-3 fats – build and nourish our brains and are part of the equation for happiness. Omega 3 fatty acids are often referred to as essential fatty acids because we have to get them from the food that we eat – we cannot make them.
The higher your blood levels of omega-3 fats, the higher your levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin are likely to be. Some clinical trials that gave fish oils rich in omega-3s to people with depression showed a 50% reduction in depression ratings, greater than the 15% reduction shown with anti-depressant drugs.
Oily fish (salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines, cod, tuna, halibut) are the best sources of the long chain omega 3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. If you’re vegetarian or vegan choose walnuts, chia seeds and flaxseed, although most plant sources of omega-3 do not contain the long-chain fatty acids mentioned above and while the body can make them from short-chain omega-3s – like the ones found in nuts and seeds – conversion is poor and it is difficult to get enough EPA and DHA, especially if you are not in good health.
Nuts such as almonds, Brazil nuts, pistachios, hazelnuts, pecans and walnuts and seeds including chia, flaxseed, pumpkin, sesame, sunflower and hemp are also rich in anti-inflammatory omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. Seeds are also a great source of zinc – the most abundant mineral in the brain and the amino acid tryptophan both of which are needed to make serotonin – often referred to as the ‘happy hormone’.
Prebiotics – these are foods containing plenty of fibre, which is arguably most of the plants we eat but if you want to home in on the ones that have been shown to be particularly high in prebiotics -choose leeks, onions, garlic, beans and pulses, wholegrains and even cooked and cooled potatoes (you only need 1 or 2 though!).
Prebiotics are the favourite food of our gut microbes, which make up our microbiome and play a crucial role not only in our digestive health but our overall health - including our mental health. They are responsible for manufacturing vitamins, helping us to digest our foods, nourishing our gut lining and even influence our brain chemistry.
One of the most important functions of the gut microbiome is to modulate our immune function - 70% of which resides in our gut. That’s important because inflammation in our gut can lead to inflammation elsewhere in the body and we are now beginning to understand just how big a role inflammation has in our mental health as well as our physical health. So, prebiotics should be a high priority for our brain health and the greater the variety the better.
Leafy greens – broccoli, curly kale, cavolo nero, Brussel sprouts, collard and spring greens, all types of cabbage, spinach, watercress, rocket, pak choy, choy sum, chicory, romaine lettuce, Swiss chard, chard…there are many to choose from!
Leafy greens are full of brain supportive nutrients, including vitamin C, carotenoids, zinc, calcium and magnesium. Their fibre content will also fuel your gut microbes.
Include a large handful (uncooked) of leafy greens every day for brain health.
Antioxidants - Oxidation results from the chemical reactions that are occurring continuously within the body and produces ‘free radicals’ which have the potential to damage cells. Increased oxidation may result in fatigue, frequent headaches and low mood. A healthy intake of antioxidant rich foods helps us to manage this.
The big three antioxidants are vitamin C, A and E, which you will get from all of the above. Berries, herbs, spices, cacao, tea (especially green and white) and coffee will also provide you with a range of essential plant bioactives that also function as antioxidants.
Water is often forgotten as a nutrient and in the case of our brains a little dehydration can have a huge impact. Three quarters of our brains weight is water and even a couple of percent drop in hydration can really have an impact, affecting our mood, performance and energy levels.
If you would like support on how to include the right foods for brain health - book yourself in for a 30 minute complimentary consultation.