Increasingly, researchers are finding stronger links between diet and brain health.
It’s time to start feeding your brain.
For years research on healthy eating has focused primarily on physical health and the link between diet, weight, and chronic disease. But the emerging field of nutritional psychiatry studies how foods can make us feel.
“Many people think about food in terms of their waistlines, but it also impacts our mental health,” said Dr. Uma Naidoo, a Harvard psychiatrist and the director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. “It’s a missing part of the conversation.”
The connection between the stomach and the brain is strong, and it starts in the womb. The gut and brain originate from the same cells in the embryo, Dr. Naidoo said. One of the main ways the brain and gut remain connected is through the vagus nerve, a two-way chemical messaging system that explains why stress can trigger feelings of anxiety in your mind and butterflies in your stomach.
Food can also influence the state of your microbiome, and some species of gut microbes have been linked to higher rates of depression. Even the brain chemical serotonin, which regulates mood, has a strong gut connection. Only 5 percent of your body’s serotonin is made in the brain; the rest is made, stored, and active in the gut, said Dr. Naidoo, author of the new book “This is Your Brain on Food.”
Debunking a Myth
Often people try to influence their mood by eating comfort foods. The problem experts say, is that while those foods typically offer a tantalizing combination of fat, sugar, salt, and carbs that make them hyper-palatable, they can actually make us feel worse.
Traci Mann, who heads the health and eating laboratory at the University of Minnesota, ran a series of studies to determine whether comfort food improved mood. Participants were asked the question: “what foods would make you feel better if you were in a bad mood?”
Before each test, the participants watched film clips that were known to elicit anger, hostility, fear, anxiety, and sadness. After the film, the viewers filled out a “negative mood” questionnaire to indicate how they were feeling. Then they were given a heaping portion of their favorite comfort food, the food they liked but didn’t view as comfort food, a “neutral” food (an oat and honey granola bar), or no food at all. Everyone had three minutes alone to eat their food or sit quietly. After the break, they filled out the mood questionnaire again.
Whether a participant ate comfort food, any food or no food didn’t make a difference in mood. The factor that seemed to matter most was the passage of time.
While Dr. Mann’s research found that traditional comfort foods don’t have a meaningful effect on mood, a growing body of research shows that improving the quality of a person’s diet can have a significant effect on mental health. An analysis of 16 studies found that dietary interventions significantly reduced depression symptoms.
A four-year study of more than 10,000 university students in Spain found that people who closely followed a Mediterranean diet were at lower risk for depression. Australian researchers examined food diaries of 12,385 randomly sampled adults from an ongoing government survey. They found that higher fruit and vegetable intake are increased happiness, life satisfaction, and well-being.
There’s still much to learn about which foods and how much of them can improve mental health.
“Our brains evolved to eat almost anything to survive, but increasingly we know there’s a way to fuel it to improve overall mental health,” said Dr. Drew Ramsey, a psychiatrist and assistant clinical professor at the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York who is also the author of the book “Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety.”
Try Something New
For this week’s Eat Well Challenge, try adding some new foods to your plate that has been linked to better brain health. This list is based on suggestions from Dr. Naidoo and Dr. Ramsey.
LEAFY GREENS Dr. Ramsey calls leafy greens the foundation of a brain health diet because they’re cheap, versatile, and have a high ratio of nutrients to calories. Kale is his favorite, but spinach, arugula, collards, beet greens, and chard are also great sources of fiber, folate, and vitamins C and A.
COLORFUL FRUITS AND VEGETABLES The more colorful your plate, the better the food is for your brain. Studies suggest that the compounds in brightly colored fruits and vegetables like red peppers, blueberries broccoli, and eggplant can affect inflammation, memory, sleep, and mood. Reddish-purplish foods are “power players” in this category. And don’t forget avocados, which are high in healthy fats that enhance the absorption of phytonutrients from other vegetables.
SEAFOOD Sardines, oysters, mussels, wild salmon, and cod are sources of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids that are essential for brain health. Seafood is also a good source of vitamin B12, selenium, iron, zinc, and protein. If you don’t eat fish, chia seeds, flax seeds, and sea vegetables are also good sources of omega-3s.
NUTS, BEANS, AND SEEDS Try to eat between a half and a full cup of beans, nuts, and seeds, including cashews, almonds, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds, which are great snack, but they can also be added to stir fry dishes and salads. Black and red beans, lentils, and legumes can also be added to soups salads, and stews or enjoyed as a side dish.
SPICES AND HERBS Cooking with spices not only makes your food taste better, but studies suggest certain spices may lead to a better balance of gut microbes, reduce inflammation and even improve memory. Dr. Naidoo especially likes turmeric; studies suggest that its active ingredient, curcumin, may have benefits for attention and overall cognition. “Turmeric can be very powerful over time,’ she said. “Try incorporating it into your salad dressing or roasted vegetables,” or add it to marinades, curries, sauces, stews, or smoothies. “Adding a pinch of black pepper makes curcumin 2,000 percent more bio-available to our brain and body,” she said.
FERMENTED FOODS Fermented foods are made by combining milk, vegetables, or other raw ingredients with microorganisms like yeast and bacteria. A recent study found that six servings a day of fermented foods can lower inflammation and improve the diversity of your gut microbiome. Fermented foods include yogurt; sauerkraut; kefir, a fermented milk beverage; kombucha, a fermented drink made with tea; and kimch, a traditional Korean side dish of fermented cabbage and radish.
DARK CHOCOLATE People who regularly eat dark chocolate have a 70 percent reduced risk of depression symptoms, according to a large government survey of nearly 14,000 adults. The same effect was not seen in those who ate a lot of milk chocolate. Dark chocolate is packed with flavonols, including epicatechin, but milk chocolate and poplar candy bars are so processed they don’t have much epicatechin left in them.
Source: NY Science Times, Feb, 2022