Top 5 Foods for Mental Health

Anti-Inflammatory Pyrami001

Just what role does nutrition play in mental health? Why is it important? And what can we do to feel better by eating?

Let’s start by defining nutrition and diet. Nutrition is “the science that interprets the interaction of nutrients and other substances in food (e.g. protein, carbs, fat, etc.) in relation to maintenance, growth, reproduction, health and disease of an organism.” While diet is what we eat. 

With that said, what we want is to change our diet to allow for more nutrition. The reason this is so important is that nutrition is what helps us cope and deal with stress, anxiety, depression, and all that life hurls at us. What I mean by this is that if we eat a serving of meat, for example chicken, it is the nutrients that help us build serotonin, immunity, and the such that will combat colds, flus, and mental health issues. 

To that end, here are the 5 best foods to help with mental health:

Fish

In study after study, research has shown that those who consume omega-3 fatty acids are less likely to experience depression, and more likely to have heart health, as well as cognitive and affect benefits. One reason this is important is that our brains are made of mostly fat. We need to nourish them with healthy, positive sources and omega-3s are just such a source (we can’t manufacture omega-3s, so we need to get them from our foods).

Omega-3s have also been shown to fight off depression. In a study out of Norway, in the Journal of Affect Disorders, researchers showed that “those who regularly took cod liver oil, which is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, were about 30% less likely to have symptoms of depression than those who did not. The longer the participants took cod liver oil, the less likely they were to have high levels of depression.” 

What can you do: You can eat more fish. But if your vegan or vegetarian, you pick up some chia seeds or walnuts and throw them on your morning meal. You can also find omega-3 oil and capsules or ail available at most stores. The goal is to get 2 to 4 grams a day.

Vegetables

We’ve all been told that we need to eat our veggies. I’m sure it was the bane of most people’s existence as kids. But research has shown that there are really good reasons why they help. Depression is often linked to inflammation. No doubt you’ve heard how inflammation affects our bodies, but did you know it affects our brains? One way to deal with inflammation, other than exercise, is through foods such as dark leafy greens like spinach, kale, broccoli, and collard greens. The chart above is taken from Dr. Weil and is his anti-inflammatory food pyramid (http://www.drweil.com/drw/u/ART02995/Dr-Weil-Anti-Inflammatory-Food-Pyramid.html) which suggests that the base of our diet should be mostly veggies with some fruit.

Further, in the journal Nutrition Journal, where research about the use of diet (vegetables to be specific) to treat inflammation was published, findings were shown that dietary treatment for inflammation, in this case for IBD (irritable bowl disease) are effective as supplements to other treatments. The link here is that diet alone won’t stop depression, but combined with exercise, sleep, and therapy, it can be a powerful aid. 

What can you do: When it’s meal time, throw some greens in your meal. Try to add a salad to lunch and dinner. If you’re having pasta, try to add some spinach to the sauce. Whatever you do, and however much you add, it’s better than none at all. Aim for a cup at each meal.

Whole grains

Everywhere we look it seems some box or another is putting how many grams of whole grains are in their product. While whole grains are great, they are best found in their natural form: brown rice, oats, whole wheat flour, etc, rather than in processed foods which generally have much added sugar. 

What’s great about whole grains, of which all get turned to sugar in our body, is that they’re packed with fiber which slows the absorption of that sugar into out blood stream. That’s important so we don’t have a spike of energy followed by a crash of energy and mood. It’s also important in fighting off diabetes as a sudden shock of sugar causes a sudden release of insulin. Over time, our bodies become less able to handle these events which eventually may lead to type II diabetes and inflammation. 

What can you do: Make sure most of your grains come from sources that aren’t prepared, such as oats for oatmeal, brown rice instead of Uncle Ben’s, etc. For the foods you do eat that are prepared such as bread and cereals, try to find ones’ that have few ingredients, sugar not listed as the first or second ingredient, and have large amounts of fiber (a 4:1 ratio of carbs to fiber).

Lean meats

Is meat good? Is it bad? And the controversy rages on. Wherever the final decision comes out, one thing is true: tryptophan is good and is needed. Lean meats, such as turkey, are a source of this protein. Most of us know this protein as what puts us to sleep on Thanksgiving. However, that’s not entirely true. Most of what puts us to sleep is overeating. But that’s for another post. 

What we’re concerned about here is what tryptophan does. And specifically what it does is allow for the creation of serotonin, the feel good chemical. Research has shown that those who suffer from depression have a lack of serotonin. This is why SSRI (selectrive serotonin re-uptake inhibitors) drugs work. They essentially reuse the serotonin that is spent. But they don’t make it; only tryptophan makes it. 

What you can do: Simply eat more lean meats. A few times a week is all that’s needed. Don’t worry if you’re vegetarian, there are options for you, too. Sources such as seaweed, spinach, and mushrooms also have this chemical available. 

Low-fat dairy

Again, the argument rages about whether or not dairy should be part of one’s diet. Whether that gets decided or not, what diary can provide is a source of vitamin D. Vitamin D, amongst other things such as helping with building of bones, is necessary to our lives. And what researchers have shown is that those who suffer from major depression generally have a lower amount of this vitamin than those who don’t suffer from depression. 

According to research of the Loyola School of Nursing, “Effective detection and treatment of inadequate vitamin D levels in persons with depression and other mental disorders may be an easy and cost-effective therapy which could improve patients’ long-term health outcomes as well as their quality of life.” While sun is the major source of vitamin D, there are others and low-fat dairy is one such source. 

What you can do: Get outside more. Of course in the winter, here in Minnesota, that’s not going to happen. So you can also find vitamin D in fish such as tuna and salmon, some mushrooms, as well as dietary supplements.