I ATTENDED a very interesting talk recently by Fintan O'Regan, head teacher and specialist in special needs children. Referring to children with behavioural problems and learning difficulties he said: "Change the mood and you'll change the behaviour." This really resonated with me.
In my research, ranging from general mood and brain-enhancing foods, to those foods that are recommended for people with specific issues like depression, anxiety and sleep disorders, there are a few foods that come up across the board.
And the good news is, that most of these are commonly available, fairly economical and already part of most of our diets. I'm sure that you would have read about most of these, but now is the time to take action. Why not try incorporating one of these each week so that it becomes a habit that you can build on for life.
Week 1: Oily fish and oil seeds
Fish oils and oil seeds are rich in omega 3 fatty acids, which are vital to our overall health and wellbeing, but do play a particular part in maintaining the integrity of the brain tissue and how the neurons synapse.
Omega 3s and omega 6s are also essential in regulating hormones, which are the messengers in our bodies. Imbalanced sex hormones (think raging PMS) and stress hormones wreak havoc on our mood and relationships.
Both oily fish and oil seeds like flax get converted into useable components by our bodies. Research has shown that depressed people often lack a fatty acid known as EPA, found in fish oil.
Participants in a 2002 study featured in the 'Archives of General Psychiatry' took just a gram of fish oil each day and noticed a 50pc decrease in symptoms such as anxiety, sleep disorders, unexplained feelings of sadness, suicidal thoughts, and decreased sex drive.
Omega 3 fatty acids can also lower cholesterol and improve cardiovascular health. Get omega 3s through two weekly servings of 140g each of oily fish like salmon, trout, mackerel and tuna.
There has been a lot of debate about farmed versus wild salmon but one study shows that while farmed salmon had a higher fat content overall, the omega 3 content of both was similar.
There are also omega 3 rich plant sources such as walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds and rapeseed oil. I particularly like rapeseed oil as you can cook with it and use it in salad dressings. And even better, it is widely grown in Ireland.
Rapeseed oil (also known as canola oil) has just 6pc unhealthy saturated fat content, compared with 14pc in olive oil and more than 50pc in butter.
It has higher levels of important healthy fatty acids than any other vegetable oil. Omega 3 aids blood circulation and brain development, omega 6 promotes healthy skin, hair and nails and omega 9 boosts heart health and blood sugar control.
Rapeseed oil is also a good source of vitamin E, which is an important antioxidant that combats premature ageing of brain cells.
Week 2: Superfood oats
In herbal medicine oats, Avena sativa, is used as a nervous system tonic as it is highly nutritious and full of B vitamins which support the nervous system in times of stress. Oats are my number one superfood breakfast choice. This humble wholegrain contains folic acid, pantothenic acid and vitamins B6 and B1.
Oats help lower cholesterol, are soothing to the digestive tract and help avoid the blood-sugar crash-and-burn that can lead to crabbiness and mood swings.
Other wholegrains such as kamut, spelt and quinoa are also excellent choices for delivering brain-boosting nutrients and avoiding the pitfalls of refined grains such as white flour.
The fibre in oats helps to make it a slow-releasing carbohydrate, which keeps blood sugar nice and steady. This is vital for diabetics and for weight loss, but also for sustained energy and good brain function and concentration. Oats are also incredibly rich in B vitamins, which are vital for the nervous system and brain function – as is selenium, an important antioxidant for healthy brain chemistry.
So if you have trouble keeping focused at work or have a child who struggles to concentrate, try a bowl of porridge for breakfast with some added nuts and seeds for healthy fats.
There are also several antioxidants and phytonutrients present in oats that have powerful anti-cancer actions. Selenium, along with happy brain chemistry, is involved in DNA repair and is associated with a reduced risk of colon cancer.
Week 3 : Complex carbohydrates and wholegrains
Our brains are fuelled by glucose, the simplest building block of carbohydrates. The best source of carbohydrates are those foods that are full of fibre and nutrients that will break down slowly into glucose and supply a steady stream of fuel for the brain.
Sugar and sugary junk foods can wreak havoc on your mood as you get a surge of glucose and then a slump. This is due to how our body processes carbohydrates with insulin. Read more about this subject with 'The GL Diet' by Patrick Holford.
Brown rice, an unprocessed wholegrain, contains vitamins B1 and B3, and folic acid. Brown rice is also a low-glycemic food, which means it releases glucose into the bloodstream gradually, preventing sugar lows and mood swings.
Brown rice also provides many of the trace minerals we need to function properly, as well as being a high-fibre food that can keep the digestive system healthy and lower cholesterol. Instant varieties of rice do not offer these benefits. Any time you see "instant" on a food label, avoid it.
I am also a huge fan of using pot barley in soups and casseroles in autumn and winter. Pot barley is an excellent source of slow-releasing carbohydrates and B vitamins, excellent for the immune system. The high-fibre content ensures a slow, steady stream of glucose. You can also make a porridge out of barley or use it as a base for a substantial salad or a pilaf.
Besides choosing 'brown' versions of foods like brown rice, brown bread and wholewheat pasta, there are some unusual grains like spelt (called farro which can be cooked like a risotto, quinoa, millet and kamut). These are all easy enough to cook, highly nutritious and an excellent source of energy.
Week 4 : Leafy green vegetables
Different vegetables each influence the brain through different mechanisms, but usually share the common trend of having antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and cytoprotective properties. For example, leafy green vegetables such as cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, Chinese cabbage and brussels sprouts contain compounds known as isothiocyanates and indoles, which can prevent oxidative damage and fight cancer cells in ways that chemicals from other vegetables cannot.
A 2012 study from the 'American Journal of Clinical Nutrition' also showed cruciferous vegetables are rich in carotenoid antioxidants called lutein and zeaxanthin that can cross the blood-brain barrier and accumulate in the brain, providing protection against free-radical damage and age-related cognitive decline.
Right from foetal development in the womb, green, leafy vegetables rich in folic acid are very powerful factors in nervous system and brain development. So much so that women trying to conceive and pregnant women are advised to take this supplement. If you think about it, this is the only supplement that is recommended across the board.
As an example, spinach is a rich source of folic acid and antioxidants. While this leafy green may not give you super-human Popeye-like strength in a matter of seconds, research from 'The Journal of Neuroscience' shows that the regular consumption of an antioxidant-rich spinach extract affects the brain health of animals by reducing oxidative stress, ageing effects and cognitive deficits.
Spinach is an excellent source of flavonoid antioxidants that can promote brain health. Further, the type of flavonoids, the combination of flavonoids and/or the flavonoids in conjunctions with other compounds in spinach appear to provide super fuel for powering cognitive function and providing brain protection.
Another leafy green, the humble cabbage contains vitamin C and folic acid. Cabbage protects against stress, infection and heart disease, as well as many types of cancers, according to the American Association for Cancer Research.
Cabbage is also a good source of blood sugar stabilising fibre, which slows down the release of carbohydrates, providing a steady stream of fuel for the brain. Interestingly, green leafy vegetables are also important for proper nerve conduction and to protect the optical nerves in the brain. So another good mood food.