Most people are aware that good nutrition is essential for physical well-being and the prevention and management of such chronic conditions as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Less recognized, however, is the relationship that exists between nutrition and mental health.
Nutritional factors play important roles in mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. The extent of that role is continuing to be explored by health experts and researchers, but undoubtedly the foods we eat affect our mood and emotions.
Our brains, just as our bodies, need to be nourished to function properly. Lack of specific nutrients can affect brain chemistry and ultimately alter cognition, behavior and mood. Unfortunately, the typical American diet is nutritionally inadequate and deficient of key nutrients.
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. While there’s no specific diet identified as a cure for depression or similar mood disorders, eating certain foods may alleviate symptoms, and a healthy diet can be incorporated as a part of overall treatment.
What nutrients may positively impact my mood?
Tryptophan: An amino acid that the body uses to produce serotonin — a chemical that helps transmit signals between nerves. Serotonin is associated with happiness and helps regulate mood balance, sleep and digestion. Serotonin deficiencies are associated with depression and anxiety. Dietary sources of tryptophan include nuts and seeds, soy, poultry, fish, lean meats, cottage cheese, yogurt, legumes, oats, brown rice and bananas.
B-vitamins: Vitamins that help the body produce energy from food. vitamin B-deficiencies can contribute to a host of health issues including lethargy and depression. A lack of vitamins B6 or B12 can also cause anemia. Foods that are rich in B-vitamins include whole grains, fish and seafood, poultry and lean meats, eggs, milk, leafy green vegetables and legumes.
Omega-3 fatty acids: Essential fatty acids that are important to your overall health and well-being, including nerve and brain structure and function. Research supports a correlation between rising rates of depression and a declining consumption of omega-3s in the American diet. These fats cannot be produced by the body and therefore must be consumed through the diet. Good sources of omega-3 are oily fish (such as salmon, mackerel and sardines), eggs, walnuts, flaxseeds and sunflower seeds.
Selenium: An essential trace mineral involved in thyroid function, which may affect mood. People with a selenium deficiency may have increased risk for depression. Selenium also functions as an antioxidant and is believed to be preventative against certain cancers and cardiovascular disease. Good dietary sources of selenium include Brazil nuts, fish and shellfish, meat and poultry, flaxseeds, brown rice, barley, mushrooms and onions.
While some nutrients may be more beneficial for brain health than others, the overall healthy eating pattern of a person is more important than focusing in on individual nutrients. According to the USDA Dietary Guidelines for 2015-2020, a healthy eating pattern includes a variety of foods from the following food groups: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, dairy and oils (healthy fats). A healthy eating pattern also limits added sugars, saturated fats and sodium. More information on the Dietary Guidelines can be found at https://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines.
Mental health issues are multifactorial and complex, and nutrition is one of many lifestyle components that may improve mental health function. Adequate sleep, stress reduction, regular physical activity and a healthy, balanced diet are all crucial for physical and mental well-being.
Scientists continue to explore the effects of diet and nutrition on mood and mood disorders. However, it is never too early to reap the benefits of a healthy diet. Talk with your physician and registered dietitian before initiating dietary supplementation or altering existing treatment plans. Specific nutrient recommendations can be found in the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) developed by the Food and Nutrition Board at the Institute of Medicine.
Brain food recipe: Salmon kebobs
Salmon is an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, selenium and vitamin B12.
1 pound wild salmon fillets, cut into chunks
1 zucchini, cut into chunks
1 yellow bell pepper, cut into chunks
1 large red onion, cut into chunks
Sea salt and black pepper, to taste
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons lime juice
Soak wooden or bamboo skewers in water for about 10 minutes prior to grilling.
Place salmon, zucchini, bell pepper, and onion in a shallow baking dish and sprinkle with salt and pepper, to taste.
Whisk together garlic, olive oil, and lime juice in a small bowl. Pour mixture over salmon and vegetables, toss, and marinate for 15 to 30 minutes.
Preheat the grill or broiler. Skewer the salmon and vegetables, reserving marinade, and grill or broil 5 to 7 minutes, turning once, until salmon is cooked through and vegetables are tender.
While cooking, boil the marinade in a small saucepan for 5 minutes. Drizzle over skewers and serve.
Adapted from Fit Brains Blog