Foods for Brain Function
Many of us have heard of ‘food for the brain’ – in other words, eating food that is good for our brain function. When we talk about ‘brain function’ we tend to think about cognitive functions such as memory and concentration, but our brains also need to be able to balance our mood effectively so it is important to understand that what we eat (and don’t eat) can have a direct impact on our mood which in turn can lead to anxiety issues and even depression.
Depression is more typically considered to be a biochemical condition, but nutrition can be a factor affecting both the onset and the severity of depression. Essentially, our gastrointestinal tract is responsible for absorbing the nutrients that our organs — including the brain — require in order for them to function properly. Approximately 60 litres of blood are pumped into our brains every hour, and if that blood is lacking in nutrients, then it is going to impair the brain’s function.
Diet and Mental Health
The Mental Health Foundation recognises that good nutrition is essential for our mental health and they also recognise that some mental health conditions can be directly influenced by our diet. We can help to protect our mental wellbeing by making sure that our diet contains sufficient amounts of complex carbohydrates, essential fats, amino acids, vitamins, minerals and water. Let’s examine some of these nutrients a little more closely to understand the role that they play in keeping our brains healthy.
Omega 3 fats for Depression
We already know that Omega 3 fats are important for our heart health, but recent scientific research has shown that they also have natural anti-depressant properties. There are two types of Omega-3 fats – DHA and EPA. DHA contains properties which support our cognitive development and function, but it is the anti-inflammatory properties of EPA which are important in promoting our mental wellbeing because it reduces inflammation in the brain which is thought be a cause of depression. Oily fish, seafood, seeds, walnuts and cooked spinach are all good sources of Omega 3.
There is emerging evidence supporting the theory that B vitamins play a vital role in our mental wellbeing. People deficient in vitamins B6, B12 or folic acid are thought to be more likely to suffer from depression and also to be less likely to benefit from anti-depressant drugs. Good sources of B6 include white meat, eggs and wholegrains. B12 sources include animal products (meat, fish and dairy) and folic acid is found in leafy greens, beans, rice & pasta and cereals.
Serotonin is a chemical messenger which is believed to help stabilise our moods. Let’s call it the ‘happy chemical’. It is made mostly in the gut (and less so in the brain) from an amino acid called tryptophan. Poor nutrition resulting in poor gastrointestinal health can prevent serotonin production from tryptophan and can ultimately result in us having less happy chemicals in our brain. Tryptophan can be found in many protein-rich foods such as meat, salmon, nuts, beans and eggs. Exercise and sunshine can also help to boost our serotonin levels.
Our brains run on glucose, so there is a direct link between mood and blood sugar balance. Our bodies break down carbohydrate foods into glucose and if our blood sugar supply is uneven then so, in turn, is our mood. This is a key reason why reducing our sugar intake is so important – all we are doing by consuming sugary foods and drinks is putting extra pressure on our blood sugar levels and so causing our moods to swing.
We can get all the glucose that we need via healthy complex carbohydrates such as beans, vegetables and whole grains. Many of us consume more sugar than our bodies need, and so they have to work harder to regulate our blood sugar levels and in turn regulate our moods. This is where a certain mineral becomes significant in our mental wellbeing.
Chromium – and Water, Water, Water!
Chromium is a mineral which is vital for keeping our blood sugar levels stable because insulin cannot work effectively without it and it is insulin which clears glucose from the blood. Chromium can be found in tap water and also in food such as sweet potato, broccoli and oats.
Let’s help ourselves to help our moods
Mental Health problems are widespread – it is thought that approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. It really does make sense to understand what we can do, though our diet and nutrition, to help to keep our brains functioning as healthily as we can. Eating the right foods is just as important for our mental health as it is to our physical health.