“You are what you eat.” We’ve all heard that before. You may have noticed that you feel better when you eat certain foods, but have you ever really thought about the fact that what you feed your gut directly affects your mental health? Science is beginning to understand that the foods we eat directly control how your mood and brain functions. That’s great news because it puts you back in control of your body and your mind with a few easy changes to your diet.
Your brain is your most valuable asset. It is always working for you. It controls your thoughts, movements, breathing, heartbeat, senses. It is working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with no vacations. That means what you fuel your brain with is vitally important. What you eat can directly impact your brain and its function. Studying how what you eat affects mood and other aspects of mental health is developing into a new science called Nutritional Psychiatry. This is an opportunity for clinicians to better help patients with alternative interventions for mental health issues. Many doctors do not routinely discuss nutritional choices with their patients beyond the normal “eat a healthy diet” advice. The science of nutritional psychiatry is helping to fill this void by exploring what foods are most beneficial for mental health.
What You Eat Affects How You Feel
How does our diet affect our brain? Your gastrointestinal tract contains over a hundred million nerve cells. Your digestive system doesn’t just digest food, it also affects your brain and mood via these neural pathways. Neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, regulate sleep, appetite, mood, and pain, and 95% of the serotonin you make is made in your gastrointestinal tract. Putting good fuel in your gastrointestinal system by the foods you eat, and supplementation, helps protect you against toxins, inflammation and helps regulate your mood.
When you take a good probiotic or eat foods that are nutritionally dense, anxiety, stress and mental outlook improve. A study published in the journal, Molecular Psychiatry, found that a diet that mimics the diet of the Mediterranean region can help lower the risk of depression. Specifically, a diet that incorporates fish, nuts, vegetables and olive oil appears to benefit our moods. The study also found that people who followed a Mediterranean diet had a 33% lower chance of being diagnosed with a mood disorder such as depression. This also means that eating foods that are highly processed and full of sugar are likely to not only increase our waistlines but also affect our mood. Five studies of 32,908 adults in Spain, France, the UK, Australia and the United States found that poor diet can be linked to increased chances of developing depression or anxiety.
What Can You Do Today for the Best Brain Health?
The obvious answer is to eat a healthy diet, but with all the conflicting information out there, how do we really know what we should eat? Before we can eat mood-boosting foods, it’s important to know what foods we should avoid. Refined carbohydrates such as sugar, candy, soda, fruit juice, syrup and more, cause your blood sugar to spike giving you a burst of energy followed by a mood-busting crash. Refined starches such as rice, bread, cookies and crackers probably make you feel great while you’re eating them, but they won’t help your mood stay sunny in the long run.
Foods you should incorporate into your diet for the best brain function include:
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids – fatty fish, walnuts, olive oil
- Probiotics – yogurt, kefir, fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut, Korean kimchi, miso, tempeh, and pickled vegetables.
- Folate from leafy green vegetables – spinach, edamame, artichokes, okra, turnip greens, avocado, and broccoli
- Foods rich in Vitamin D – Alaskan pink salmon or sockeye salmon with bones, cheese, egg yolks, soymilk.
- Caffeine in moderation – approximately 1.5 cups of coffee a day or chai tea
Pay attention to how your diet is affecting your mood and energy levels–not just when you eat it but over the next hours and the next day. Change your diet to a “clean” diet for a few weeks just to see how you feel and test the difference in your brain function and energy levels. Try adding fermented foods such as kimchi or kombucha. Try going dairy free and grain free as well. Once you’ve incorporated these healthy changes for a few weeks, add foods back into your diet one by one and check your reaction to each one. Most people can’t believe how much better they feel when they eat clean both physically and emotionally, and how much worse they feel when they reintroduce certain foods back into their diets.
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