We all know the benefits of fresh, healthy food on the physical body, but how about the mind? Of course, it makes perfect sense that what we eat affects the brain. Therefore, what we eat also affects our mental health, mood, happiness and general feelings of wellbeing.
Mental health has taken a spotlight in recent years and no longer are mental health issues regarded as something to hide, disguise or struggle with alone. With this openness around mental wellbeing, we are only recently discovering just how wide spread mental health issues are. Rising numbers of anxiety and depression are indeed the most common culprits in this case. Unfortunately, many mental health issues are commonly treated with medication, which can usually mask or treat the symptoms, but may not get to the root cause at play.
Mental health also refers to the overall health of our brain. While we commonly care for our physical body through exercise, diet and other means, our brain also requires care and attention. We are aware that the foods we eat can heal or harm us, and so too is this the case when it comes to brain health. Certain foods contain nutrients and vitamins that can not only boost our brain’s ability to optimally function, but also go a long way in improving our mood, stress levels and ability to cope with what life hands us.
The below list of foods not only support the brain but also can address and support mood-specific issues like sleep, anxiety, depression and attention issues. We also highlight foods to avoid for optimal brain health, namely: pro-inflammatory foods like processed oils and sugars, alcohol, aspartame (found in diet sodas and gums) and caffeine.
7 Foods to Improve Your Mental Health & Wellness
You may already be familiar with the concept that fish is good ‘brain food.’ That is because good quality oily fish contains DHA. DHA is an Omega-3 fatty acid which helps improve both short and long-term memory, contributing to optimal brain health. Omega 3 acids also help circulate serotonin and dopamine, our bodies natural ‘feel-good’ chemicals, around the body. Therefore a diet high in Omega 3 fatty acids can help to boost mood and also reduce levels of anxiety. Find DHA in ‘oily’ fish such as salmon, trout and prawns, or you can take a good quality fish oil supplement.
Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries are the perfect snack to get your daily dose of antioxidants. Antioxidants assist in repairing cells, as well as help to combat inflammation caused by free radical damage. Free radicals are often found in pollutants, cigarette smoke and other chemicals. By reducing the damages caused by free radicals, antioxidants can also assist in improving brain health and the symptoms associated with anxiety and depression. As an added bonus, berries also contain a compound called polyphenolics which have been found to improve memory, concentration and attention span.
While people seem to avoid carbohydrates a little more these days, wholegrain are an incredibly important part of our diet and offer a host of benefits. Wholegrains such as brown rice, quinoa, oats, rye and barely are a rich source of tryptophan, an amino acid that helps to produce serotonin- that ‘feel good’ hormone! Serotonin assists in calming the mind, improving mood and maintaining a steady sleep cycle.
Have you ever stopped to notice that walnuts in fact look exactly like a brain? This is for good reason. Walnuts are wonderful for long-term brain health. They are full of antioxidants which help to inhibit oxidation in the brain and body. Even more amazingly, these nuts can also lead to the growth of new neurons – which means walnuts can help to grow new brain cells, an essential aspect of maintaining good mental health.
There are many reasons to eat your greens, and brain health is one of them. Studies have shown that people who regularly consume daily servings of leafy greens such as spinach, kale and collard greens have a slower rate of cognitive decline. Leafy greens are also high in dopamine and also magnesium. The former being wonderful for focus and concentration, and the later being terrific for lowering stress and anxiety and promoting sleep and recovery in the body.
Beans are also one of the top food choices for a happy, healthy brain and perfect for those following a plant-based diet. Beans and legumes such as chickpeas, lentils and kidney beans are full of fibre and antioxidants. They also keep your blood sugar stable and enable you to burn more energy. Beans also contain thiamine, a vitamin needed for the production of acetylcholine which is the neurotransmitter essential for memory.
Fermented foods include natural unsweetened yoghurts, kimchi, kombucha and sauerkraut are thought to affect the same parts of your brain as some anti-depressants do. Including these wonderful foods in the diet can help with feelings related to anxiety and depression. The good bacteria in fermented foods directly influences mood and emotions. An enormous body of research links gut health to mental health, and the probiotics and prebiotics in fermented foods actively affect the environment of our gut. A healthier gut means a healthier mind.
Top 3 foods to Avoid for Better Mental Health
If eating the above foods helps to boost mental health, there are certain types of foods that can do the opposite.
In the brain, excess sugar impairs both our cognitive skills and our self-control. For many people, having a little sugar stimulates a craving for more. Sugar has drug-like effects in the reward center of the brain. Studies have found that a diet high in sugar hinders learning and memory by literally slowing down the brain. If you’ve ever experienced a sugar crash, then you know that sudden peaks and drops in blood sugar levels can cause you to experience symptoms like irritability, mood swings, brain fog and fatigue. Sugar-rich foods can alter the neurotransmitters that help keep our moods stable. Consuming sugar stimulates the release of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin. Constantly over-activating these serotonin pathways can deplete our limited supplies of the neurotransmitter, which can contribute to symptoms of depression. Chronically high blood sugar levels have also been linked to inflammation in the brain. And as some research has suggested, neuro-inflammation may be one possible cause of depression.
While a glass of wine after a hard day might help you relax, in the long run it can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety and make stress harder to deal with. This is because regular, heavy drinking interferes with neurotransmitters in our brains that are needed for good mental health. Alcohol itself is a depressant, it slows your body down and changes the chemical makeup in your brain. Regular drinking lowers the levels of serotonin in your brain – a chemical that helps to regulate your mood. Alcohol also damages memory systems in the brain. It can interrupt sleep patterns and affect your ability to focus. Alcohol is an addictive substance that can not only cause symptoms of depression and anxiety, but also make an existing problem worse, while making recovery much harder.
While the brain thrives of healthy omega 3 fats, not all fatty acids are good for the brain, and the over accumulation of certain fatty acids in the body can lead to mental health problems. Studies have found that diets high in unhealthy saturated fats crate high levels of palmitic acid in the hypothalamus associated with traits of depression.
Cheat Sheet to Brain Health:
Aside from the above foods to eat or potentially limit for brain health, there are also a host of foods that are wonderful for more specific aspects of brain health and mood. Find this quick cheat sheet below to help you with certain ailments or possible insuffi ciencies.
These are for focus and motivation:
turmeric, theanine from green tea, lentils, fish, lamb, chicken, turkey, beef, eggs, pumpkin and sesame seeds, broccoli and spinach.
These are best for mood, sleep, pain and craving control
Combine tryptophan-containing foods, such as eggs, seafood, chickpeas, nuts and seeds, with healthy carbohydrates, such as sweet potatoes and brown rice, to elicit a short-term insulin response that drives tryptophan into the brain. Dark chocolate also increases serotonin.
These are best for anti-anxiety:
Broccoli, almonds, walnuts, lentils, bananas, beef liver, brown rice, whole oats, oranges, rice bran, spinach.
Also helpful for anxiety:
Pumpkin and sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach, Swiss chard, sesame seeds, beet greens, summer squash, quinoa, black beans, and cashews.
Zinc plays a part in modulating the brain response to stress. Zinc deficiency can lead to symptoms of depression and difficulties with learning and memory. These foods are best for zinc:
Oysters, beef, lamb, spinach, mushrooms, asparagus, sesame and pumpkin seeds.
Vitamins B6, B12, Folate-Rich Foods:
Essential for brain health, cognitive function, memory and also assists depression. Helpful foods include:
Leafy greens, cabbage, bok choy, bell peppers, cauliflower, lentils, asparagus, garbanzo beans, spinach, broccoli, parsley, cauliflower, salmon, sardines, lamb, tuna, beef, and eggs.
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