The food we eat profoundly affects our brains each and every day. It influences cognitive functioning and the way we perceive the world. So, if you’re looking to improve your mental health, you might want to evaluate what you’re shopping for at the market and what you’re ordering when you eat out.
The concept of simple foods influencing a complex organ like the brain may seem far-fetched. After all, pharmaceutical companies invest vast sums of money and time developing medications to accomplish the very same thing. Some consider the modern medical approach more high tech and scientific. However, in reality, foods are generally more complicated than synthetic drugs. Medications are typically comprised of one or a few isolated chemicals. On the other hand, foods and food combinations consist of hundreds, if not thousands, of naturally occurring chemicals. And, these chemicals can have a real impact on the chemistry and functioning of the brain.
Diet and Positive Effect
Adopting a Mediterranean-style diet has been shown to improve mood in as little as ten days. As a bonus, this dietary shift supports a healthier cardiovascular system and cognitive functioning too. Likewise, a Mediterranean eating pattern, which is rich in monounsaturated fats such as avocados, nuts and olive oil, reduces angry feelings and the severity of depressive moods. The key to accessing the mood boost of a Med-style diet is to focus on low-glycemic, nutrient dense foods. Practically speaking, this means that you should limit starchy, sugary foods and emphasize healthy sources of protein, fat and fiber.
Consider Taking a Multi-Nutrient Supplement
Several studies indicate that taking a multivitamin/mineral supports overall mood and well-being. This even applies to those who aren’t necessarily anxious or depressed. Rather, multi-nutrients can simply reduce the degree to which everyday stress affects quality of life.
When choosing a multivitamin/mineral, I suggest looking for a formula that contains considerable amounts of B-vitamins, magnesium and zinc. All of these nutrients have demonstrated mood-elevating properties. I recommend a multi that’s high in chromium, if one’s low mood is accompanied by a pattern of binge- or comfort eating. Lastly, make sure to take your multi-nutrient with a meal or snack as this greatly enhances the absorption of essential, fat-soluble nutrients.
Balancing Omega Fatty Acids
Most modern diets are much higher in omega-6 fatty acids than traditional diets. At the same time, they're significantly lower in omega-3 fats, commonly found in cold-water fish, flax seeds and wild game. Too many omega-6s, contained in vegetable oils, and not enough omega-3s are associated with depressive symptoms. However, supplementing with concentrated fish oil can alleviate anxiety, depression and perceived stress in some people. Fish oil may be instrumental in reducing cortisol, a stress hormone, and systemic inflammation - both of which are risk factors for anxiety disorders and clinical depression.
Trust Your Gut (Bacteria)
In recent years, scientists have begun to identify a powerful link between the bacterial environment in the gut and mood. As it turns out, eating foods rich in healthy bacteria or “probiotics”, such as yogurt, can profoundly alter "mental health parameters". And, this can literally change the way one experiences negative events.
Along the same lines, consuming foods rich in "prebiotics" has been shown to lower stress levels and, subsequently, diminish negative perceptions. Prebiotics are a select class of carbohydrates and fiber encased in fruits, roots and vegetables that fuel the growth of probiotics.
Feel Good About Dark Chocolate
Eating an ounce or two of dark chocolate daily is a pleasurable way to improve your mental outlook and performance. Polyphenols, a variety of antioxidants contained in dark chocolate, increase blood flow to the brain. But, the neuro-benefits of cocoa don’t stop there.
Randomized, controlled trials reveal that dark chocolate eases symptoms “associated with clinical anxiety and depression”, including chronic fatigue. Interestingly, current evidence indicates that chocolate may improve mental health, in part, via beneficial alterations in gut microbiota.
When I review the medical literature, as it pertains to the food-mood connection, I see many connections that all come full circle. A well-structured Mediterranean diet is rich in nutrients, omega-3s and prebiotics. Dark chocolate and yogurt are common features of a Mediterranean lifestyle as well. And, so too are foods rich in chromium (broccoli, mussels and red wine), magnesium (almonds, pumpkin seeds and spinach) and zinc (crab, grass fed beef and oysters). All of this illustrates the importance of making calculated, evidence-based food choices in order to establish and/or maintain a positive outlook on life. Why not give it a try?
John Paul Fanton, based in Los Angeles, California, is a consultant, researcher and writer with over 20 years of experience in the field of natural medicine. He designs unique nutritional plans, mind-body (meditation, mindfulness, etc.) and vitamin/supplement programs for individual clients who are interested in improving overall health, weight and wellness. You can find his weekly column on the Healthy Fellow.
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