Without doubt some of the pleasure we get from eating certain foods, like chocolate and cake, comes from our cultural learning – we grow up associating these foods with special occasions and rewards. However, the role of food goes beyond being just a ‘comfort’, our mental well-being and the food we eat appear to be intimately entwined. Read on to discover what the science tells us.
vagus nervegut microbesshort chain fatty acids Our gut and brain are physically linked by millions of nerves, the most important of which is the vagus nerve . Chemicals including serotonin, the smile-inducing feel-good brain chemical, are produced in both the brain and the gut and communicates via the nervous system, whilst beneficial gut microbes play an important regulatory role. These trillions of microbes don’t stop there, they influence our emotional wellbeing by producing neuroactive substances, including short chain fatty acids (SCFA), which help lift dark moods.
Start by making these 5 simple changes to what and how you eat:
positive effectdepressionquercetin Studies support that when we eat more fruit and vegetables we experience a positive effect on our mental health. By including a variety of colourful veg, we may even help lower levels of depression . The exact mechanism behind this isn’t fully understood, but it may be because fresh produce is packed with protective antioxidants which help to keep the brain in good health. Certain fruit and vegetables may be even more helpful. Take bananas – they are a good source of vitamin B6 and supply tyrosine and tryptophan, all of which are needed to make the feel-good brain chemicals, dopamine and serotonin. Another helpful hack is to include fruit and vegetables rich in the phytochemical quercetin ; this is because quercetin inhibits the enzyme that breaks down these feel-good hormones. Useful inclusions are kale, berries, apples, onions and grapes.
forms of omega-3levels of depressionvitamin D The type of fats we eat play a key part in our mood. That’s because the right fat contributes to the flexible structure of our brain cells and plays an important role in brain development. We typically refer to these fats as essential because we have to get them from the foods we eat. Of particular note are the omega-3 fatty acids which are found in oily varieties of fish like salmon, trout and sardines. These supply potent forms of omega-3 – called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) – consumption of which is linked to lower levels of depression , most notably in women. Oily fish are also a valuable source of vitamin D which appears to be extra helpful for supporting the cognition of older adults. The relevance of this is clear when we realise our enjoyment of life is dependent on being able to focus, learn and have good memory.
consider a supplementstudies suggest If you prefer not to eat fish or you follow a plant-based diet look to chia seeds, flaxseeds, hemp seeds and walnuts. However, be aware that plant sources supply a less active form of omega-3 and so, depending on your circumstances, you may need to consider a supplement . Whether you are vegan or not, a handful of nuts and seeds has additional benefits – they supply mood-boosting nutrients including tryptophan, the precursor to serotonin, as well as zinc and iron. Another beneficial fat to include in your diet is extra virgin olive oil; studies suggest the polyphenols it supplies, helps protect the brain from the effects of ageing and, in so doing, may improve memory.
sugar intakewhole foods Reducing your sugar intake , eating regular meals and minimising your consumption of refined carbohydrates helps stabilise blood sugar levels and prevents the swings which inevitably lead to irritability. Choose fibre-rich foods which have lower GI values and opt for whole foods rather than packaged or processed options. Eating this way slows your digestion and allows for a steady and sustained release of glucose which your brain, mood and energy levels will thank you for.
Frequently dubbed ‘the second brain’ our gut plays an important role in keeping our moods lifted. For this reason, following a gut-friendly diet which supports your gut microbiome is key. Minimise your use of processed foods, which often contain additives such as emulsifiers – these may disrupt beneficial gut bacteria. Include fermented foods daily such as kefir, sauerkraut, miso, kimchi and live yogurt – these top up levels of good gut bacteria. Whole grains, as well as legumes, contribute the fibre needed to fuel our gut microbes, so by including oats, wholewheat bread or pasta and pulses in your diet, you’ll be helping your gut microbes prosper. If you’re not used to fibre in the diet, start slowly. One option is to support your gut microbes by creating resistant starch – you can do this by cooking and cooling rice, pasta and potatoes. This method of preparation changes the chemical structure of the carbohydrate, creating a starch which behaves more like fibre – this will keep you fuller for longer, slows the release of energy and fuels your gut microbes.
Levels of the feel-good brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine are influenced by what we eat, as well as the amount of physical activity we do. Our brain uses the amino acid tryptophan to make serotonin, but whilst this amino acid is plentiful in animal foods including turkey and tuna, studies suggest it’s not necessarily the meat-based meals which optimise our serotonin levels. That’s because when we eat protein-rich foods, competition from other amino acids can prevent tryptophan from entering the brain. Instead, studies suggest by eating a carbohydrate meal with protein we promote insulin release, which encourages our muscles to absorb competing amino acids. This makes it easier for tryptophan to increase serotonin levels in the brain. All of which supports the idea that plant-based proteins combined with complex carbs such as wholegrains and legumes may be a better dietary strategy for those with low levels of serotonin.
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