Brain Superfoods: Improve Your Mental Health Through Your Diet
Mental illnesses like depression are far more common than anyone thinks. 1 in every 4 people suffers from depression, females being more commonly affected. Our fast-forward lifestyle is simply not co-operating with our health; no wonder the incidence of diseases like cancer and mental illness are on rise, which were previously very rare. This increase in incidences are the indicators that we need to take some time out of our busy schedule and check our health.
So, just to help you out a little bit, here's a list of those nutrients which will help support your mental health.
Foods proven to play a role in improving mental health
1. Omega-3 fatty acids: 60% of our brain and central nervous system is made up of fat, in particular omega-3. Since our body doesn’t produce essential fatty acids we have to get these from our diet. It has been found that people suffering from depression has low levels of omega-3 in certain parts of their brain. Omega-3 reduces inflammation in the body and brain, which is caused by stress, smoking, vitamin D deficiency, and physical inactivity. A high fat and high sugar diet increases systemic inflammation in our body and brain. This is associated with changes in brain, like reduction in the chemicals required for a healthy brain cells.
Food high in omega-3 has been shown to reduce the symptoms of schizophrenia, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This may be because omega-3 is related to neurotransmitter production (brain chemicals responsible for transmission of messages and for our moods) like serotonin. By supporting the transmission of messages in the brain it also boost learning and memory.
Sources of omega-3: fish, flax seed oil, walnut, eggs.
2. Carbohydrates: Brain needs energy in the form of glucose and this is provided by carbohydrates which ultimately breaks down in glucose. A steady supply of glucose is necessary for the proper functioning of brain. But supply of high amount of simple sugar will cause the opposite effect in a long run. These simple sugars are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and this causes an initial surge of energy which soon wears off when the body increases its insulin production, leaving us feeling tired and low. Therefore complex carbohydrates should be preferred which release glucose slowly, helping us feel full longer and providing a steady source of fuel for the brain and the body.
Sources of complex carbohydrates: whole-wheat products, bulgur, oats, wild rice, barley, beans and soy.
3. Tryptophan: Production of neurotransmitters is very essential for the proper mental health because they allow different parts of the nervous system to communicate with each other and the body. The amino acid tryptophan which is required for the synthesis of serotonin- a neurotransmiiter- influences our mood. Serotonin is associated with depression. The process of serotonin synthesis and the requirement of complex carbohydrates are also linked because complex carbohydrates helps tryptophan to enter into the brain. A healthy amount of serotonin reduces the symptoms of depression and anxiety, and improves overall cognitive functioning. Tryptophan should be taken in natural forms because the supplements were not considered safe and were removed from the market.
Sources of proteins (incl. Tryptophan): meat, fish, eggs, milk, cheese, nuts, beans, lentils.
4. Folic acid: Green vegetables are rich in folic acid, deficiency of which are linked to insomnia, fatigue and higher risk of depression. They also contain vitamin B1 which is associated with the control of mood.
5. Selenium: Selenium, a trace mineral, which is mainly associated with the immune system, thyroid hormone metabolism and reproduction also plays a role in preventing depression, fatigue and anxiety. Broccoli is a rich source of selenium. Other sources of selenium include chicken, onions, seafood, walnuts and Brazil nuts, and whole-grain products.
6. Vitamin D: Vitamin D deficiency is also linked with higher rates of depression, and seasonal affective disorder, where depression starts in the fall and lasts through the winters and subsides in summers.
Sources: Most food do not contain vitamin D but you don’t have to worry about its deficiency if you spend enough time under the sun (5-30 minutes under the sun twice a week, fair people requires more time than darker people). Vitamin D is produced by our body when exposed to sunlight. Besides that fishes like salmon and tuna also have vitamin D content.
Other Important Nutrients
Flavonoids: Flavonoids perform various neuroprotective actions in the brain including protection of neurons against injury, and suppression of neuroinflammation. It also promotes memory, learning and cognitive function.
Fermented food: Fermented foods, such as yogurt contain probiotics (healthy bacteria) which are proven to reduce anxiety, stress and the effect of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA. It should be noted that too much intake of processed foods may compromise the balance of healthy and unhealthy bacteria in the gut. Hence, the less processed food you eat, the better for your health.