Can What You Eat Affect Your Mental Health?

Can What You Eat Affect Your Mental Health?



“An apple a day keeps the doctor away”  Proverb


The answer is yes!  What we eat, has a direct effect on the structure and function of our brain.  Our brain requires a constant supply of food to be able to manage a multitude of complex tasks.  Our brain uses a variety of nutrients, vitamins and minerals from food, to perform these vital functions.  A lack of  nutrients can impair brain function, and affect our thinking and mood.  Deficiencies can cause issues with concentration, memory, problem solving, fatigue, and contribute to mental health issues.  The following paragraphs illustrate various nutritional needs for maintaining and improving our brain health.


Chemicals in the brain, called neurotransmitters regulate our thoughts and moods. Neurotransmitters are made from amino acids, some of which come from food.  The neurotransmitter serotonin is believed to influence mood, behaviour, appetite, digestion, sleep and sexual desire and function.  Serotonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan which can be found in foods like whole oats, milk, turkey and dark chocolate.  


Vitamins and minerals such as folate and B12 support healthy function of the nervous system and protect against stress.  Folate and B12 are found naturally in animal products (meat, poultry, fish, dairy, eggs).  They are also added to foods like breakfast cereals and soy milk.


Foods high in antioxidants support brain health by protecting against free radicals which can injure and destroy brain cells.  Foods high in antioxidants include green tea, deep coloured vegetables and fruit, and dark chocolate.


“Good” fats, known as monounsaturated fats, promote healthy blood flow to the brain.  These fats increase HDL (good) cholesterol and decrease LDL (bad) cholesterol.  Olive oil, canola oil, avocados, and nuts are high in monounsaturated fats.


Essential fatty acids, Omega 3 and Omega 6, can not be made by the body and must be obtained from our diet. Essential fatty acids are crucial to maintaining our brain’s integrity and ability to perform.  Some studies suggest these nutrients protect against depression, anxiety, and alzheimer’s disease.  Omega 3 fatty acids can be found in foods such as oily fish, seeds (flax, hemp, chia) and nuts, especially walnuts.  Foods high in Omega 6 include poultry, eggs, avocado and nuts.


There is a significant association between our brain health and our gut health.  Researchers have coined our gut, our second brain. More than 100 million nerve cells line the gastrointestinal tract.  These nerves communicate back and forth with our brain.  Although the main function of these nerves is to control digestion, researchers are finding evidence that suggests that the gut might send signals to the brain that trigger mood changes.  There is a growing body of evidence that shows that beneficial gut bacteria might reduce anxiety, decrease stress and promote emotional well-being.  Foods high in beneficial gut bacteria are known as probiotics.   Yogurt, kefir, tempeh, sauerkraut, and kimchi are probiotics which nourish good gut bacteria.  Prebiotics are needed to feed probiotics. Prebiotics nourish beneficial gut bacteria.  Some of the best prebiotics are raw chicory root, raw dandelion greens, raw garlic, raw leeks, raw onions, raw asparagus, and bananas.


Carbohydrates are often given a bad rap, and some diets encourage eliminating them.  However, complex carbohydrates play an important role.  They form an important part of a healthy diet. Complex carbohydrates like wholegrain breads, rice and pasta, supply our brain with a stable source of energy and play an essential role in brain performance.


It’s absolutely true we should avoid simple carbohydrates like refined sugar.  A diet high in sugar can cause inflammation and the production of free radicals.  Numerous studies correlate a diet high in refined sugars with impaired brain function and worsening mental illness.


Follow these healthy eating tips to maintain and improve your brain health:


1. Review Canada’s Food Guide

2. Incorporate foods recommended in this article

3. Avoid processed foods

4. Avoid refined sugar

5. Cut down on saturated fats

6. Reduce your salt intake

7. Eat breakfast

8. Have smaller portions and include snacks


“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”  Hippocrates


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