The role of nutrition in maintaining good health and well-being is well known. However, the importance of nutrition in mental health has often been overlooked. Recent evidence indicates the right diet can help prevent and manage long-term mental health problems including depression, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease.
There are simple dietary factors that can help improve cognitive function and reduce mental health disorders. The health of your gut has a direct impact on your mental health. Both the brain and gut have their own nervous systems; the gut sends information to the brain via the vagus nerve. Therefore, what goes into our gut can impact the functioning of our brain and vice versa.
To help keep your mind working at its best it is important to consume the following:
Fruits and vegetables
Studies suggest that nearly two-thirds of people who do not report daily mental health problems eat fruits and vegetables regularly. Green leafy greens (e.g. spinach, broccoli) are high in folic acid. High rates of depression, fatigue and insomnia have been associated with deficiencies in folate and other B vitamins.
Selenium found in broccoli has also been linked to good mental health. Low levels of selenium have been related to depression, anxiety and fatigue. Selenium is also found in seafood, chicken, onions and nuts.
Glucose is the primary source of energy for the brain so it is important to maintain sugar levels. An effective way to sustain energy levels is to co-operate complex carbohydrates into your diet, as well as eating regularly throughout the day. A slump in sugar levels leads to low moods, irritability and fatigue.
Healthy sources of complex carbohydrates include brown bread, rice and pasta, oats and beans. Try to avoid high sugar foods as much as possible. A dependency on sugar can affect your mood and research has suggested it has similar effects on the brain as drug abuse. They can cause sudden surges in your sugar level, resulting in you feeling tired and low.
Eating enough protein ensures an adequate supply of amino acid tryptophan to the brain. Tryptophan is converted into serotonin – hormone associated with improvements in mood. Good protein sources include fish, poultry, eggs and beans assist in keeping serotonin levels balanced.
Our brain is made up of 20% essential fatty acids, which we can only receive from our diet. Their role is associated with the production of brain cells and neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin that influence our moods. They are present in oily fish, nuts, flax seeds and oils e.g. olive oil play a role in our mental health.
Yogurt containing cultures
Research into the consumption of fermented foods (containing active cultures) has been shown to reduce anxiety and stress hormones. Food sources include yoghurt with active cultures, tempeh, kefir and some pickled vegetables; contain probiotics.
Probiotics are healthy bacteria, which can benefit the balance of gut flora. On the other hand, a diet high in processed foods may compromise the delicate balance of bacteria in the gut related to a number of health problems.
Hydration is also a major consideration for adequate brain function. Drinking at least 2.5 litres of water a day is vital for mental health. Even mild dehydration can cause reduced brain function, lack of concentration and low moods.
Exercise and nutrition go hand in hand with maintaining mental health. Exercise releases endorphins – feel-good chemicals in the brain that help us to relax and to feel happy.