October 10 is World Mental Health Day and we here at the Food as Medicine Institute believe that what we eat has a direct impact on mental health.
You have probably heard the expression, “you are what you eat.” This time and time again has proven to be true especially with those suffering from chronic disease and mental health disorders. The food choices we make have an impact on the way we feel. The brain is the platform for our mind and therefore the platform for our mental health. Today, we are seeing compelling research that describes the connection between our gut and brain. The clearest example of this is the role of nutrition and food in relation to mental health.
We are already aware that the brain is made up of nutrients, water and fat (essential fatty acids) and we know that food affects the way we feel and behave. In the lining of our guts is a hidden brain, our “second brain”, also known as the enteric nervous system (ENS). Though this “second” brain is not capable of thoughts, it has the ability to communicate with our actual brain in extremely profound ways. There is a growing body of evidence that is illustrating the role of diet in the treatment of individuals with mental health disorders, including depression, anxiety, and ADHD. What we consume has an effect on our microbiome (gut flora) and consequently sends signals to our brain with control our mental health.
Oftentimes, a few simply lifestyle and dietary changes can make a world of difference to our mental health. However, it is always a good idea to work with a primary care practitioner to sort out if there are any hormonal or neuro-chemical imbalances going on, if your daily life is significantly impacted by mood imbalances.
Here are some quick everyday tips to improve mood and a healthy brain.
Don’t skip breakfast
Breakfast truly is the most important meal of the day. It dictates what our blood sugar and insulin patterns will do for the remainder of the day. Our moods and metabolism will be influenced by what we put in our mouths shortly after waking.
Breakfast should be eaten less than one hour after waking. Healthy protein sources for breakfast are essential to balance out blood sugar. Protein rich breakfast ideas
- Three eggs cooked to your preference on a bed of spinach
- Fruit and veggie smoothie with nut butter (peanut butter, almond butter)
- A few pieces of grilled bacon with a side of fruit
- Leftovers from dinner the night before if it included whole grains and meat
- Greek/full fat yogurt parfait with fruit and nuts
- Water is often undervalued in its role of regulating mood and energy levels.
- We can begin to feel sluggish, decreased motivation, irritable and hungry when we are dehydrated.
- Studies show that even mild dehydration can cause fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and mood changes.
Caffeine as a Condiment
- Caffeine can provide a nice little energetic pick-me-up in the morning. It can also wreak havoc on mood regulation. It is not recommended to drink more than two cups (and that’s 6 ounces or one shot of espresso) of coffee a day.
- Caffeine can trigger feelings of panic or nervousness in people who are prone to anxiety.
- Limit caffeine intake to morning hours.
- Caffeine found in coffee, tea, and sodas can contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression and difficulty sleeping.
- Consider substituting coffee with green tea which contains less caffeine that an espresso shot and significantly less caffeine than drip coffee.
- The B vitamins work harmoniously together in our body to support numerous functions. At the top of the list is the production of important neuro-chemicals like serotonin, which is one of our “feel good” brain chemicals.
- Our B-vitamin supply can get diminished during times of high stress, which makes it a common supplement that many people benefit from taking.
- Excellent food sources of B Vitamins include leafy greens (spinach, kale, chard), red meat, whole grains, nuts, and beans
- Alcohol and high sugar foods can deplete B vitamins in your body.
- Rates of depression are higher in people with low Vitamin D levels
- Vitamin D is also needed to help the body absorb calcium for strong teeth and bones, as well as build muscle, and support the immune system.
- Vitamin D deficiency is associated with heart disease and an increased risk of heart attack
- Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, etc.) have the most naturally occurring vitamin D.
- Our bodies naturally produce Vitamin D when we are in the sun. Fifteen to thirty minutes of sun exposure twice a week helps increase vitamin D levels.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
- Humans are indeed fat heads, meaning that our brain cells are surrounded by fatty acids. The quality of fats that we put into our bodies makes a direct impact on how our brain functions.
- Avoiding trans fats is one way to support brain health (aka “partially hydrogenated oils”. Read those ingredient lists!!!)
- Studies have shown that omega-3s may be helpful in the treatment of depression and other mood disorders such as schizophrenia and ADHD.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are crucial to reducing inflammation. Excess inflammation in the body is associated with chronic disease, arthritis, asthma, and mental health disorders.
- Omega-3 rich foods include fatty fish (salmon, trout, mackerel, anchovies, sardines) walnuts, flax seed, olive oil, fresh basil, avocados, and dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, chard. )
Eat the rainbow all day long
- Brightly colored fruits and vegetables provide essential vitamins and minerals for mood support, like B vitamins, zinc, and iron.
- Highly processed foods tend to be devoid of bright color, such as bread, cakes, candy, white pasta and rice, soda, sugar, potato chips, etc. Eating highly processed foods do not support long term energy for the day nor positive benefits for mood support.
- The initial high you may feel following a soda will likely be followed by a crash, only to be followed by another soda, then crash, etc. Avoid this roller coaster by eating fresh fruits and vegetables at every meal.
Consider the Role of a Food Intolerance
- Have you ever noticed that if you drink milk, you feel sluggish? Or after a beer and pizza, you have a short temper and feel slow with your mental functioning? A food intolerance can contribute to a wide range of symptoms, including fatigue, stomach upset, skin problems, anxiety, and weight gain.
- The most common food intolerances are to dairy, wheat, gluten, soy, eggs, potato, and some fruits like citrus. A holistic healthcare provider can help you identify your food intolerance, or you can simply eliminate a suspicious food group for two weeks and see how you feel.
Don’t forget the importance of sleeping, exercising, and fresh air to support optimal mood.
- Sleep in a very dark room: Daytime energy depends on a night-time of restful sleep. Ensure that you can get at least 7-8 hours of sleep a day. Sleep in a completely dark room, void of any artificial light. If this is not possible, then purchase a sleep mask. Melatonin is a brain chemical involved in restful and rejuvenating sleep, and it supports a healthy immune system. Melatonin’s production is dependent on darkness
- Spend 20 minutes outside every day moving, even in rainy gray weather. You can do it! Exercise is crucial to blood sugar regulation and thus mood regulation.