Nutritious foods for a calm mind
Obsessing about what's on your plate is not conducive to your mental health. Instead, focus on nutrient-dense foods and follow these simple steps outlined by nutritionist Gaye Godkin
Published 22/11/2016 | 02:30
Until recently the role of diet and mental health was poorly understood. Mood and mental well-being was purely associated with chemical imbalances in the brain, and treated with pharmacological medication. Fortunately, the field of nutritional psychiatry is finding there are many consequences and correlations between not only what you eat and how you feel, but how you ultimately behave. The primary focus has been on the lack of serotonin, otherwise known as the 'happy hormone'.
Nutritional science has moved on and with it a deepening understanding of the role of how foods and nutrients positively and negatively impact this delicate chemical orchestra. While most people are aware of how diet affects their physical health, fewer understand that the brain, as an organ, is affected by the foods they eat, this in turn has a knock-on effect on their mental health. Dietary interventions hold the key to a number of the mental health challenges our society is facing.
Salmon of knowledge
Our fore fathers had great wisdom. Many legends and old wives tales have told us that eating salmon is good for the brain. Fortunately we now have sufficient science to support this hypothesis. The brain indeed loves nothing better that a good feed of fish.
The brain is a fatty organ, in fact 66pc of the brain contains a fat that comes from eating oily fish. DHA is the most abundant fat in the brain. It comes from omega 3. Omega 3 is available in salmon, trout, mackerel, anchovies, tuna and sardines. We need a constant supply of it to provide the brain with DHA. It is recommended that we eat oily fish at least twice but preferably three times weekly.
Like most good things in life, we tend to take sunlight for granted until it's gone. During the winter months in Ireland we enjoy little or no sunshine. From the months of November to March we also experience very little natural light. This is not good for the human condition, in particular the workings of the mind.
Vitamin D is chronically lacking in the Irish population. The World Health Organisation recommends that we get 20 minutes exposure per day. Due to our northerly latitude we do not get this. Good food sources of vitamin D are lamb's liver, mackerel, dairy products and eggs. It is wise to supplement during these months of darkness.
Our second brain
Recent discoveries of the role that the gut plays in neuro-expressions is very exciting. The human gut is a very complicated organ and now appears to be a very sophisticated organ with its workings having far-reaching consequences. The human gut is populated with over 2kgs of bacteria. Until recently their important role was not understood.
It is now believed that having the correct amount of specific good bugs can enhance mood and modulate brain chemicals. These bacteria like a plant-based diet, they particularly like fibre-rich foods. Aim to increase vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, pulses and beans to feed them lots of fibre and help the good bugs multiply and support brain health.
Serotonin is a brain chemical which is primarily responsible for maintaining good mood, feeling happy and positive. Serotonin is made from a protein called tryptophan. Its synthesis begins in the digestive system when we eat proteins. This protein is found in foods such as turkey, chicken, bananas, cheese, nuts and oats.
By increasing protein intake from these foods you are supporting its production. Aim to eat protein at each meal. The key is to eat proteins from a diverse source and not just from animal sources.
The adrenal glands are stimulated by the brain when the brain perceives a threat. The adrenals respond by producing adrenaline, a stress hormone. When the body is constantly exposed to prolonged exposure of stress the adrenal glands become exhausted. The adrenals are hugely dependent on a mineral called magnesium to function. Good sources of magnesium are dairy products, dark green vegetables, nuts and seeds. Aim to consume daily and supplement if you are feeling particularly stressed.
Nothing smells nicer than brewing coffee. Coffee beans come from a plant and as such are packed full of rich plant chemicals called anti-oxidants which protect the cells of the body. It is neuro-protective and supports the liver function and does other good works in the body. However coffee stimulates the production of adrenaline.
Adrenaline is essential for survival but excess adrenaline exacerbates the feeling of flight-fright syndrome. In essence, this prompts the body to remain hyper-vigilant and on high alert. This mind state creates the opposite effect of relaxation and mindfulness. Aim to reduce your coffee intake to once daily and drink it on a full tummy. If you are highly stressed it is best to avoid it.
Glucose is the preferred fuel of the brain. The brain is somewhat compromised in that it has no storage capacity for excess glucose unlike other organs of the body. It requires a slow steady supply and does not respond well if it is constantly bombarded with sugar highs. Unfortunately, just like an expensive car, your brain can be damaged if you ingest anything other than premium fuel. If substances from low-grade fuel such as excess sugars from processed or refined foods get to the brain, it has little ability to get rid of them. Diets high in refined sugars, for example, are harmful to the brain. They promote inflammation and oxidative stress.
Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function and even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression.
There is much confusion around the area of good fats and bad fats. The area of omega fats is somewhat tricky. Omega 3 and omega 6 are both essential fats that the body cannot make and must take in from the diet. The balance between these fats is the key to brain health. Omega 3 fats come from marine sources, i.e. oily fish and tends to be lacking in the Irish diet. Omega 6 comes from seed and nut oils and tends to be in excess in the diet.
Farmed animals, such as chicken, are fed diets high in omega 6 and when we eat them we are consuming these fats. Omega 6 has the opposite effect on the brain and only very small amounts are required. If you are supplementing your diet with omega 3 don't be tempted to take omega 6 also as they both compete for absorption and excess omega 6 will destroy the benefits of omega 3 and reduce DHA availability.
Don't burn the midnight oil
If we could all live like hedgehogs life would be very easy. During the winter months certain animals hibernate and re-emerge feeling rested after the long dark winter. At this time of year, the body is tired. Lack of daylight, the usual winter coughs, colds and flus are all a challenge and can leave us feeling exhausted.
Sleep is the most restorative prescription that we can administer to ourselves.
While maintaining a healthy diet is a huge player in the orchestra of well-being, without sleep it is difficult to maintain optimal brain health.
In the wintertime, it is advisable to provide the brain and mind with lots of rest. Aim to get to bed an hour earlier and sleep for a minimum of seven hours with eight being optimal.
Food is a wonderful gift from nature, it is the fuel of the human body. Over the past 30 years we are producing and wasting more food than ever before.
Never in the history of mankind have we experienced an excess of human fuel. Food and nutrition have become so topical and popular now that we are no longer enjoying what is on our plates. There is a trend towards nutritional and food obsession. This is not serving us and has a negative effect on people who are challenged with mental health issues.
When you sit to eat, don't judge yourself, try not to run a nutritional analysis on the content of your plate. Nutritional science is evolving, nobody has absolute consensus as to what constitutes the perfect diet for everlasting health. In the meantime, relax, savour, slow down and enjoy your food.
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