Food and nutrients are not just about your metabolism and your weight. The chain reaction in your body and brain that are set off by consuming different foods is fascinating! The calories you consume play a specific role in the body. Some positive, and some not so positive. I will be the first to admit, some foods I consume are purely for the enjoyment they bring me or the memories that are associated to that food. That is okay! There is freedom to consume foods that elicit these responses in the brain. At Revive Wellness, we work with a lot of individuals who struggle with different levels of mental health concerns, such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
The impact the diet has on the brain is huge, as the brain is a functioning organ that can respond to nutrient deficiency or nutrient adequacy.
Our mental health can be impacted by a few different factors:
1) Biological: your genetic make up, your nutrition as an infant, the health of your neurotransmitters in the brain, and your antioxidant intake all affect your brain’s functions.
2) Psychological: long-term poor nutrition could have an impact on the central nervous system, potentially leading to a mental health diagnosis that occurs later in life. Long term psychological stress may actually alter nutrient absorption or affect brain development, as well as deplete cortisol levels (more on this hormone later).
3) Societal: Ah. The dreaded diet culture factor. What society shoves down our throat in the form of promises of health coming from diets or changes to weight has a significant impact on our mental wellbeing, telling us we are not ‘good enough’ as is. Our brain is being stimulated faster than ever before with non-stop barrages from social media, apps, emails, billboards, you name it. Pair this with an increase in processed foods that can affect bloods sugar and hormone levels and it’s a terrible mental health match made in heaven.
So what role does the diet actually play when it comes to brain health?
First let me clarify the word ‘diet’ for a second. When we talk diet, it is supposed to mean: “the variety of food that we consume that is designed to satisfy our body’s physical needs and can provide enjoyment to the body, mind, and soul.” The word ‘diet’ is NOT “a specific short term formulated program based on eliminating or adding certain foods to provide a promised outcome in a set amount of time”.
I have to throw in a quick disclaimer here. Some ‘diets’ are 100% necessary if an individual has a diagnosed condition, allergy, or intolerance. Then we absolutely will restrict certain foods or follow specific regimens to prevent damage to the body and support optimal health.
For the majority of the population, we just want them to fuel their body and brain well with a variety of food. I emphasize variety because the greater variety of foods we consume, the greater the variety of nutrients we consume.
Here are the key nutrients to keep in mind when it comes to having a healthy brain:
Sugar: Your brain is designed to run on glucose, which is primarily found in carbohydrates (grains and starches, vegetables, fruits, some dairy products etc). If we don’t have enough or a stable consumption of glucose in the diet, the brain will struggle. The balance here is really key. Eating a lot of sugar from any form at once can create massive mood and energy swings, which can exacerbate feelings of depression or anxiety. Giving your brain a consistent source of energy and preventing a ‘spike and crash’ effect in our blood sugar level is important.
Omega-3: This is one of the superstars for your brain function. Omega-3 fats can affect the health of your neurons and the brain’s ability to transfer messages. There are two omega-3 fats specifically the body CANNOT make and therefore we MUST get through diet: EPA (eicosapentaoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Here’s what the research shows they can do:
o Improve primary depression
o Help some aspects of bipolar disorder
o Help prevent suicide and self-harm
o Help menopausal depression
o Improve depression during and after pregnancy
o Potentially protect against schizophrenia
Protein: The amino acid tryptophan, found in protein food sources, can affect serotonin, also known as the “happiness hormone”. Which means low protein intake can negatively affect serotonin levels and lead to moodiness and depression.
Vitamin B12: This little nutrient is responsible for proper neurological function, DNA synthesis, and the production of red blood cells, which prevent iron deficiency. The risk for depression is higher if there is a B12 deficiency in the diet.
Vitamin D: The good old sunshine vitamin. Do you live in Canada? Sadly, our body doesn’t have a chance to make Vitamin D from the months of October to April. And let’s be honest we’re probably already bundled up with our parkas by then anyways. Therefore, all Canadians should take a Vitamin D supplement, as low levels been linked to depression and chronic fatigue.
The dosing and amounts of all the nutrients mentioned above can be determined by a health care professional, as there likely is a right amount for you that is different than for someone else. I think it’s important to understand is that being aware of the foods and nutrients that help your brain stay healthy is different then signing up to a stringent diet to try and ‘fix’ something. Your worth is never determined by your size or the quality of the foods you eat. But the quality of the foods you eat can absolutely affect how you feel and can be a tool to help manage depression, anxiety, or PTSD. At the end of the day, YOU MATTER. The foods you eat matter. What doesn’t matter is the voices from the diet culture telling you you’re not enough until you reach ___________.
**This blog was originally written for ReVive Wellness Inc.