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Food, the brain, and mental health

The effects of food on your brain

Your brain is the most important organ in your body. It keeps your heart beating, lungs breathing, and all the systems in your body functioning. That’s why it’s essential to always keep your brain operating at optimal levels.

In order to do this, we need to change our mindset around food and how we use it. Let’s stop looking at food as simply a fuel source, or something to deprive ourselves of (to limit calories). Instead see it as a source of energy that can also rebuild your brain and maintain emotional well-being.

1. Food and Brain Health

Understanding the effects of the food we eat on our cognition will help us determine how best to manipulate our food choices to promote mental wellness. Unfortunately, your brain can be damaged if you ingest anything other than premium fuel. If substances from “low-premium” fuel (such as what you get from processed or refined foods) get to the brain, it has little ability to get rid of them. Diets high in refined sugars and grains, for example, are harmful to the brain. In addition to worsening your body’s regulation of insulin, they also promote inflammation. Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined and processed foods and impaired brain function.

Inflammatory diet patterns that are high in sugar, refined carbs, unhealthy fats and processed foods can contribute to impaired memory and learning, as well as increase your risk of diseases such as Alzheimer's and dementia.

Estimates predict that dementia will affect more than 65 million people worldwide by 2030, and Alzheimer’s is now being referred to as Type III diabetes due to its correlation with chronically elevated insulin levels.

When you think about it, it all makes sense. If your brain is deprived of good-quality nutrition, and free radicals and damaging inflammatory cells are circulating within your brain’s enclosed space contributing to brain tissue injury, consequences are to be expected.

The most common nutritional deficiencies seen in patients with mental disorders are of omega–3 fatty acids, B vitamins, minerals, and amino acids that are precursors to neurotransmitters. Clinical trials have indicated that Vitamin B12 delays the onset of signs of dementia. Chances are we all know someone who is suffering from cognitive decline or has a family member suffering from these preventable diseases. It is safe to say that these diseases are part of our it or not.

2. Food and Mood

Few people are aware of the connection between nutrition and depression while they easily understand the connection between nutritional deficiencies and physical illness. For many years the medical field did not fully acknowledge the connection between mood and food.

Depression is typically thought of as being strictly biochemical-based or emotionally-rooted. On the contrary, nutrition can play a key role in the onset, as well as, severity and duration of depression. Many of the noticeable food patterns that precede depression are the same as those that occur during depression. These include poor appetite, skipping meals, and an overwhelming desire for sweet foods. Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined and processed foods and a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders. A recent correlation study found that people who consumed a diet composed of highly processed foods showed an increase risk of clinical depression of 50-100%.

Similar to foods that are good for brain health are also good for your mood. Eating whole, real foods that are rich in vital vitamins and minerals such as magnesium, potassium, zinc, Vitamin E, D, and B, and Omega 3’s will assist in maintaining your emotional well-being.

3. The Gut, Brain Connection

Fortunately, today, the growing field of nutritional psychiatry is finding there are many consequences and correlations between not only what you eat, how you feel, how you ultimately behave, and cognitive function, but also the kinds of bacteria that live in your gut. Several gut hormones that can enter the brain, or that are produced in the brain itself, influence our cognitive mood and ability.

Studies have shown that when people ate foods (or took supplements) promoting good gut bacteria, their anxiety levels, perception of stress, and mental outlook improve, compared with people who did not. Other studies have compared “traditional” diets (high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, fish and seafood, and modest amounts of lean meats), to a typical “Western” diet (typically high in processed and refined foods and sugars) and have shown that the risk of depression is 25% to 35% lower in those who ate a traditional diet. In addition, many unprocessed foods are fermented, and act as natural probiotics which promote the growth of good bacteria. Good gut bacteria not only influence’s what your gut digests and absorbs, but also affects the degree of inflammation throughout your body, as well as your mood and energy level.

This may seem implausible and bit “woo hoo”, but the notion is gaining traction among researchers and recent results have been quite amazing.

4. “Foods” to Avoid and Foods to Enjoy

Some foods have negative effects on the brain, impacting your memory and mood and increasing your risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Luckily, you can help reduce your risk of disease by cutting certain foods from your diet and adding in other whole, nutrient rich foods. Itemized below are a few suggestions on what to cut and what to add.

What to Cut

  1. Sugary Drinks & Artificial Sweeteners

  2. Refined Carbohydrates

  3. Trans Fats (industrially produced oils)

  4. Highly Processed Foods (reduces BDNF*)

  5. Alcohol (excessive consumption)

What to Add

  1. Extra Virgin Olive Oil

  2. Avocados

  3. Blueberries

  4. Dark Chocolate (anti-oxidant)

  5. Eggs

  6. Dark Leafy Greens

  7. Broccoli

  8. Wild Salmon

  9. Almonds

  10. Bone Broth (gut healing)

* BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) – molecule found in various parts of the brain and is important for long-term memory, learning and the growth of new neurons. Therefore, any reduction can have negative impacts on these functions.

Closing Thoughts

Your diet definitely has a big impact on your brain health and your mood. Start paying attention to how eating different foods makes you feel...not just in the moment, but the next day. Try eating a “clean, real food” diet for a few weeks, i.e., cutting out all processed foods, refined grains, and sugar while adding in fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, or kombucha. Check-in with yourself and see how you feel.

Then slowly introduce foods back into your diet, one by one, and see how you feel. In this process you will begin to make conscious choices around food. Choosing to only fuel your body with “premium fuel”. It is important to note that much of the research in this field is still very new and continues to be developed and studied. Initial results have proven to be very positive and this gives me hope. While opinions will vary, one thing I believe to be true is that by eating food that is created by nature vs. created by man (in a lab or factory) gives me the best chance of living a longer, healthier, happier life.


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