We spend a large amount of our day reading about, shopping for, preparing and eating food. In developed countries around the world people eat a greater variety of foodstuffs than ever before – but that doesn’t mean we are well nourished.
In fact, many people do not eat enough nutrients that are essential for overall health and brain health, instead choosing a diet high in processed foods containing artificial additives, sugar and unhealthy fats.
Natural medicine has known for a long time the benefits of eating a well-balanced diet and how this can affect your mood. Scientific research and evidence have lagged behind this wisdom until recently where now we have many studies that consistently show the importance of diet on mental health.
Increasingly research is pointing to a lack of essential nutrients contributing to the onset of poor mental health in people suffering from anxiety and depression, dementia, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and ADHD to name a few. There are of course other contributing factors in the mental health maze including genetic factors, stress, physical inactivity, drugs, environmental factors, inflammation, microbiome imbalance (gut dysbiosis) and oxidative stress.
So, what are these essential nutrients, how do they help and how can I get more of them in my diet?
Omega-3 fatty acids
Omega-3’s has been extensively studied regarding brain health. Omega-3’s mainly effect the structure and function of the cell membranes in the brain and eyes and are anti-inflammatory. Plant-based omega-3’s are found in flaxseed oil, walnuts and other nuts and seeds for example. The non-plant based Omega-3 fats can be found in oysters, oily fish such as sardines, salmon (especially King salmon), anchovies and mackerel. Due to higher levels of mercury, larger fish, such as mackerel, should be consumed in moderation.
Vitamin B: niacin, folate, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12
B vitamins are involved in energy metabolism in every cell in the body. A famous hypothesis for mental disorders is ‘homocysteine hypothesis’ that excess homocysteine causes the development of psychiatric symptoms. Particularly, folate, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12 are involved in homocysteine metabolism, and low levels of the B vitamins and high levels of homocysteine were observed in subjects with dementia, and depression. It has been suggested that this is due to homocysteine’s action on blood flow to the brain, function of neurotransmitters and increases in toxicity and oxidative stress. Niacin’s action on brain function is less studied compared with other vitamin B nutrients but it is believed to have neuroprotective effects.
Folate is found in dark green leafy vegetables, legumes, whole grains, brewer’s yeast and nuts. Unprocessed meats, eggs, cheese, dairy, whole grains and nuts are, in general, richest in B vitamins.
Amino acids are the building blocks for creating proteins, from which brain circuitry and brain chemicals are formed. Some amino acids are precursors of mood-modulating chemicals; tryptophan, for instance, is needed to create serotonin. Another example is cysteine, a sulphur-based amino acid that can convert into glutathione – the body’s most powerful antioxidant.
Amino acids are found in any source of protein, meats, seafood, eggs, nuts and legumes.
An increase in oxidative stress and damage to brain cells has been implicated in a range of mental disorders, including depression and dementia. Antioxidant compounds (such as “polyphenols”, which are found in fruits and certain herbs) may “mop up” free radicals that damage cells to provide a natural way to combat excessive oxidation.
Fruits and vegetables contain these antioxidant compounds in relative abundance, especially blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and goji berries; grapes; mangoes and mangosteen; onions; garlic; kale; as well as green and black tea and various herbal teas.
Zinc is an abundant trace element, being involved in many brain chemistry reactions. It’s also a key element supporting proper immune function. Deficiency is linked to increased depressive symptoms. Zinc is abundant in meats, oysters, whole grains, pumpkin seeds and nuts.
Magnesium is one of most important minerals for optimal health, yet many of us are deficient in it. It is involved in many brain chemistry reactions. Research has shown, and certainly within clinic I regularly see improvements in depression and anxiety symptoms with magnesium supplementation. Magnesium can be found in nuts, legumes, whole grains, leafy greens and whole soybean products.
Iron is involved in many neurological activities and one of the deficiency signs is increases in anxiety and depressive symptoms as well as developmental problems. This is, in part, due to its role in transporting oxygen to the brain. Iron is found in unprocessed meats and organ meats, such as liver, and in modest amounts in grains, nuts and leafy greens, such as spinach.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble compound that’s important as much for brain development as it is for bone development. Research shows low maternal levels of vitamin D are implicated in schizophrenia and deficiency is linked to increased depressive symptoms. Aside from getting enough sun exposure, vitamin D can also be found in oily fish, UVB-exposed mushrooms and fortified milk.
Probiotics and Prebiotics
Research shows a connection between the bacteria in our guts and brain health, which may affect mental health. When the composition of the gut flora is less than optimal, it can result in inflammatory responses that may negatively affect the nervous system and brain function. A balanced gut environment is supported by a diet rich in the foods that nourish beneficial bacteria and reduce harmful flora. Eating fermented foods such as tempeh, sauerkraut, kefir and yoghurt, and by eating pectin-rich foods such as fruit skins.
What shouldn’t you eat?
Diets high in sugary, fatty and processed foods are associated with depression and poor brain health. While nutrient supplementation can have a role in maintaining proper brain function and treating certain psychiatric disorders, nutrients should be consumed as part of a balanced wholefood diet.
Nicole Haak is an experienced Melbourne Naturopath whose gentle approach and warm nature enable her to be an empathetic and supportive practitioner who takes a genuine interest in her clients’ needs. She has a deep passion for what she does. This is evident by her holistic approach to helping her patients find solutions to their health concerns and improve their quality of life.