It’s no secret that following a healthy diet can help us to look and feel our best, promoting overall physical health and preventing disease. But did you know that the food you eat can also dramatically influence your mental wellbeing? The connection between nutrients and brain function is truly amazing and understanding it better will help you to optimise your own overall health and wellbeing. Read on to discover the fascinating synergy between nutrition and brain health! 💚
🧠 Brain-Boosting Nutrients 🧠
It is common knowledge that our diet has a major influence on several health outcomes – from Type 2 Diabetes to Cardiovascular Disease and Obesity. But in recent years research has begun to explore the effect of brain-nutrient interaction, with particular attention to the impact that diet has on our mental health and cognition.
What those clever scientists have been able to prove is that some nutrients directly influence brain functioning, working on a cellular level to modulate cognition, gene expression and repair and renewal – all of which can have a massive effect on overall brain health.
Eating a diet high in brain-boosting nutrients could help to improve mood, stabilise emotions, boost memory and cognition and even protect the brain from ageing. Brain boosting nutrients can be found in a whole spectrum of foods and incorporating them into your diet everyday will help to optimise your nutrition and support mental functioning.
Which Nutrients Support Brain Health?
Eating well to support brain health is all about including certain brain-boosting nutrients in your everyday. Let’s explore four of the best…
Your brain is actually made up of around 60% fat content, most of which is Docosahexaenoic Acid (DHA) – a kind of Omega-3 fatty acid. Studies have shown that increasing our dietary intake of Omega-3, particularly DHA, can help to support brain health and boost memory, concentration, cognition and mood.
Omega-3 is found in abundance in fatty fish and cod liver oil is the traditional supplement to boost our intake. However, in recent years there have been growing concerns over the level of contaminants such as mercury found in fish oil, causing some to argue that long-term supplementation could do more harm than good. What’s more, the fish oil industry is taking its toll on the environment, with things like by-catch and overfishing harming marine animals and jeopardising precious ocean ecosystems.
So, for vegans or those keen to avoid fish oil Omega-3 (including DHA) can be found in plant-based supplements made from algae and free from fish oil. It may surprise you to know that it is in fact algae which gives fish their high Omega-3 content in the first place, amazing right?!
Protein is made up of amino acids, the building blocks our body uses to repair and recover. This applies to the brain as much as any other organ. When things such as inflammation, stress, hormonal imbalances and neurodegeneration begin to effect the brain, it is important to have enough amino acids to repair and replenish cells, minimising damage.
Dietary protein is also used to synthesise enzymes, hormones and important chemicals which are essential to normal brain function. These are used to support normal brain-body communication, helping to maintain a constant equilibrium between body and mind.
When it comes to getting enough protein it is best to try and get a ‘complete’ source with every meal, complete meaning that the protein is a source of all nine essential amino acids. This is easy for those who consume animal-based products – which usually provide the whole package – but not so easy for veggies and vegans. With a plant-based diet try to include two or more different proteins with each meal, which should give a good variety of amino acids that will combine to make a complete protein; rice and peas is a good example.
Gut Boosting Foods
Our brain and gut are in constant communication with each other via something called the Gut Brain Axis (GBA to you and me!) This bidirectional system allows the gut and brain to interact with each other – and explains that sinking feeling you get when you hear some bad news or the butterflies in your tummy when emotions run high!
Several hormones produced in the gut have been shown to directly impact mood, emotion and cognition. Studies have found that optimising gut health can have the following benefits for mental health:
- Lower levels of stress hormones
- Reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression
- Boost mood
- Stabilise emotional responses
- Reduce the risk of neuro conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease
Your gut is so much more than a waste management organ! The gastrointestinal tract is in constant communication with the environment and the brain and directly influences how we feel and react to daily stresses. Look after your gut by including some of the following foods in your everyday diet: live yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso, kimchi, almonds and sourdough bread.
Last but not least, energy is a really important nutrient for supporting brain health. Not getting enough energy can slow cognitive function and make everyday tasks more difficult, as well as having a negative impact on our mood and motivation. That’s because every single process that happens in the brain needs a supply of energy to carry out its important job. A good analogy is to think of your brain as a vehicle, it simply won’t go without a supply of fuel!
The impact of a lack of energy on brain function explains that mid-afternoon slump we experience and also the agitation and frustration that rears its ugly head when dieting! Make sure you get enough energy throughout the day to give your brain the tools it needs to function. Complex carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats are really good sources of energy that is released sustainably, try to include one source of each with every meal and aim to avoid junk food energy fixes full of harmful sugar that will cause you to crash after that initial energy hit.
There’s no denying the effect of diet on both physical and mental health, so by choosing the right foods (and avoiding the wrong ones) you can promote overall health and wellbeing from within. Getting the nutrients your body needs will help you to stay focused, energised and may even help to reduce the risk of poor mental health – that’s some food for thought! 💚
Author: Stephanie Masterman @NutriNoggin
Brain Food: The Effects of Nutrients on Brain Function (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2805706/)
The Gut Brain Connection (https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/the-gut-brain-connection)Brain Power: Why Proteins are Smart (https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/articles/200301/brain-power-why-proteins-are-smart)