Did you know eating brain healthy foods can improve your mood? Now, more than ever before, people are looking for natural, holistic ways to get to the root of their physical and mental health problems. It’s likely that you and I are no exception. On my personal journey with anxiety, depression, and insomnia I was not content with the medical treatment course that I was following. Being on multiple prescription medications is not something that I was fond of, yet I felt that I had no other option at the time.
Over the last several years, I have been able to get off of all prescription medications using targeted holistic supplementation. I have also learned how brain healthy foods can boost mood and feelings of wellbeing, naturally. If you are looking for a holistic, natural way to improve your mood, you are in the right place!
Research and Evidence
Consistent evidence shows that diet quality is directly related to the risk for developing common mental disorders. We now know that proper nutrition is not only critical for normal body functions and composition, but also for mood and wellbeing.
Research on the connection between food and mood has been more widely published over the last decade. The emerging field of Nutritional Psychiatry focuses on developing a scientifically sound evidence base to support the shift in thinking around brain healthy foods and their effect on mental wellbeing.
The gut-brain-axis, a two-way communication pathway between the gut and brain, is also gaining more attention, given the increased understanding of how the gut microbiota influences the brain and behavior.
Your Brain on Food
The average human brain consumes 20% of our daily calorie intake and is made up of 60% fat. Diets low in brain healthy foods lack nutrients and can lead to poor cognition, fatigue, memory loss, and mood disorders. Hippocrates said, “Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food.”. Unfortunately, that was over 2,000 years ago and we are just now coming to terms with the fact that good food has profound implications on brain health and mood.
Western Diet vs. Mediterranean Diet
The typical Western diet lacks nutrient density. The fast-paced life that we live has driven us to zooming through fast food drive-thru lines, consuming iced-coffees and sugary beverages on the go, and purchasing convenience foods far too often. Diets high in processed foods are strongly connected to an increased risk of developing depression, mild cognitive impairment and ADHD. A “whole foods”, Mediterranean-style diet has a protective effect against such conditions.
Consuming a diet high in processed, sugary and fatty foods and lower in healthy, nutrient and fiber dense foods is associated with poor mental health. These foods are pro-inflammatory, increasing the risk of mood related disorders. Foods representative of a typical western diet are listed below.
- Fried foods
- Fast foods
- Chips & salty packaged snacks
- Processed meats
- Processed cheese products
- Soda, juice & sugary drinks
- Sugar & candy
- Pre-packaged food
- High fat dairy
- Highly refined grains (ex. white bread)
- Large amounts of red meat
The Mediterranean diet is well known for its heart healthy benefits and has also been associated with a decreased incidence and prevalence of depression. The Mediterranean diet has anti-inflammatory properties and supports a healthy gut microbiome, which are both linked to a decreased incidence of mood related disorders. Foods representative of the Mediterranean diet are listed below.
- Fruits & vegetables
- Olive oil
- Poultry & eggs
- Whole grains
- Nuts & seeds
- Moderate Dairy
- Limited amounts of red meat
- Red wine, cheese and yogurt (in small amounts)
Key Nutrients That Affect Mood
When looking at the link between brain healthy foods and mood, several key nutrients stand out, all of which are abundantly present in the Mediterranean diet. This article will focus specifically on Fiber, Omega 3 and B vitamins which are especially important for central nervous system function and therefore mood state.
Omega 3 fatty acids are found in foods such as fish (ex. salmon, mackerel, sardines), nuts (ex. walnuts, cashews), seeds (ex. flax, hemp and chia), seaweed and algae. While nutritional supplements are generally not a replacement for a healthy diet, Omega 3 is an exception. An extensive evidence base exists for *Omega 3 supplementation as an adjunctive treatment for mood disorders including bipolar depression.
The Mediterranean diet is naturally made up of foods that are high in B vitamins; such as green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes, eggs and dairy, whole grains, citrus, fish and poultry. Vitamin deficiencies, in general, may impair cognition and brain function. This is especially true for the B vitamins; Vitamin B1 (thiamine), B9 (folic acid), B3 (niacin) and B12 (cobalamin). Cognitive related symptoms of a B vitamin deficiency can range from memory problems, impaired thinking or reasoning and dementia to depression, mania and psychosis.
Fiber rich foods have been shown to enhance gut microbe diversity and promote the growth of beneficial bacteria. Prebiotic fiber plays an important role in the regulation of mental wellness through the gut-brain-axis, which affects brain function, immune function and emotional behavior. In particular, the fiber in certain mushrooms has been shown to have anti-anxiety, tension-reducing properties and is inversely associated with the severity of depressive symptoms.
Prebiotic fibers are present in foods such as Jerusalem artichokes, green bananas, asparagus, garlic, onions, leeks, oats, apples and flax seeds. More information on fiber and mood is discussed in this blog post from Psychology Today.
Dietary Supplements, herbal medicines and functional foods are known as Nutraceuticals. Nutraceuticals have been shown to have mood and cognitive-enhancing benefits. Emerging science and high-quality clinical trials support and demonstrate this, especially when it comes to inflammation, oxidative stress, metabolism, and the central nervous system.
It has become more and more common for providers to recommend nutraceuticals as a natural therapy for behavior and mood related conditions. *Probiotics are commonly prescribed to increase the beneficial bacteria in the gut. This article answers common questions regarding how to choose a probiotic and how long it takes for them to work.
When choosing nutraceuticals, it’s important to choose a high-quality product that has undergone third party testing to ensure quality, safety, therapeutic dosing and efficacy. With probiotics specifically, it’s important to choose a strain that is specific to the symptom you are aiming to treat. My favorite nutraceuticals can be found *here.
Gut Brain Axis
There is growing interest in the microbiome and the impact gut health has on mental health. The gut-brain-axis is a communication pathway between the gut and brain. This pathway sends important messages about physical and mental health, hunger, safety, immunity, hormones and more. The microbiome has recently been identified as a key player in stress response and affective disorders, including anxiety, depression, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorders.
Approximately 90% of serotonin, the happy neurotransmitter, is produced by the bacteria in our gut. This is the same neurotransmitter that is targeted by many anti-depressant drugs. This shows a direct link between gut health and mood. A healthy gut will produce serotonin more efficiently, therefore you will experience an improvement in mood. The same is true for dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter, that is also produced in the gut.
I have the utmost respect for the medical profession. As a Registered Dietitian, I am in fact, a medical professional and truly believe there is a time and a place for medicine and prescription drug therapy. I also believe there are times when we can follow what Hippocrates taught and “…let thy food be thy medicine”.
No matter where you find yourself on your nutrition and mental wellness journey, my hopes are that you will be able to apply the information presented in this article to take at least one small step toward consuming more gut healthy foods to improve your mood and emotional wellbeing.
The purpose of this information is to inform and empower the reader to make positive lifestyle changes. The intent is not to replace medical advice or instructions given by your doctor or healthcare provider.
*If you purchase items through this link, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.
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