We know very well that what we eat affects the health and the look of our body. What we often overlook is it also affects the function of our brain. A healthy well balanced diet can add to our positive outlook, mental sharpness, cognitive recall and clear thinking.
While a diet high in processed foods and sugars, can add to fatigue, sluggishness, impaired reaction time, and has even been linked to stress and depression.
So, what you eat impacts the health of your body, brain and overall mental wellness. At every turn, each bite of food you take either adds to the health of your body or to the dis-ease in your body.
Let’s take a look at both sides.
Stress, Depression, Anxiety and Impaired Cognitive Ability
The Role of Sugar
We can find ourselves thinking we eat a pretty healthy diet, but when we look a little closer we see there are definite areas for improvement. Some start with a healthy breakfast, maybe even lunch but by dinner grab unhealthy takeout.
Or, perhaps your go-to is a must for a sugary desert every day. Or snacks mid-afternoon. Maybe the sugar laden coffee drinks or sodas. Maybe you even order “sugar-free” and don’t realize the sugar is hidden in the syrups or creamers added. Perhaps you even rotate between these, thinking “I’m doing pretty good, I only had one candy bar this week.” And, upon a closer look you see you had something with sugar every day (maybe just not in the form of the candy bar, but breads, or artificial sweeteners, or hidden in processed foods).
So, why all the talk about sugar?
Studies have shown that a high-fat, refined sugar diet can directly impact the structure of the brain, reducing cognitive ability (1). Sugar has also been linked to inflammation, in the body and brain, which is a root of numerous diseases and ailments including mood disorders, anxiety and depression. Added sugars also contribute to spikes in blood glucose levels and present as sugar swings through the day. These swings have also been linked to damaging affects on mental health. (2)
A study showed the consumption of simple or added sugars (fructose, found in sweetened drinks, juices, teas, etc) actually increases your hunger and desire for food more than food with natural sugar (glucose as found naturally in starchy foods or fruits). (3) It also adds that a greater willingness to give up long-term monetary rewards to obtain immediate high-calorie food rewards was seen. These findings show the consumption of fructose may promote appetitive and feeding behavior which impacts your decision making with food (making the sugar laden choices harder to resist and addictive).
Another study showed a high consumption of added sugars and/or non-whole/refined grains was associated with increasing odds of depression. (4)
Dr Hyman, in his book titled, Food Fix, tells us “today 60% of our diet is ultra-processed food made from commodity crops—corn, soy, and wheat—that’s turned into various sizes, shapes, and colors from the raw materials—high fructose corn syrup, white flour, and refined soybean oil.”
As he points out, processed foods are high in flours, syrups and sugar that train the brain to crave more of them, rather than nutrient-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables. These foods are highly addictive and stimulate the dopamine centers in our brain, which are associated with pleasure and reward and further the cycle of the unhealthy eating.
Processed foods are considered any foods that are pre-packaged and / or altered from their original whole state. Think cereals, bars (even ones touted as healthy), sauces, pastas, breads, frozen meals, packaged meats, pastries, biscuits. And, remember, just because the package says it is sugar-free or organic or healthy, doesn’t mean it necessarily is. Read the ingredient label and see what is inside for yourself.
Inflammation is at the root of many of the diseases and ailments we face today, including heart disease, cancer, metabolic syndrome, Alzheimer's and various degenerative conditions.
Inflammation in the brain slows down communication between neurons and means nerve cells are dying. It essentially causes your brain to atrophy and age too fast.
Inflammation in the body presents itself in numerous ways, such as with arthritis and also more subtly as fatigue, mouth sores, abdominal or chest pain, and rashes.
When your brain becomes inflamed it may show signs such as brain fog, slow thinking, fatigue and even depression.
Although brain inflammation can occur from physical brain trauma, we are looking here at effects from chronic inflammation in the body typically seen from diet. As we’ve already discussed, a diet high in processed foods and those laden with sugars and refined flours can cause inflammation in the body and brain.
Your gut, referred to as the second brain, is literally connected to your brain through millions of nerves, specifically the Vegas nerve. It runs from the brain through the face and thorax to the abdomen, your gut. Through the vagus nerve the brain and gut communicate, sending messages to each other.
The gut is able to influence the behavior of the brain and the brain is also able to influence the bacteria living in your gut.
Gut bacteria produce hundreds of neurochemicals that the brain uses to regulate basic physiological processes as well as mental processes such as learning, memory and mood. For example, gut bacteria manufacture about 95 percent of the body's supply of serotonin (a mood stabilizer), which influences both mood and gut activity. (5)
Depression and anxiety can manifest first in our guts through an unhealthy diet. These unhealthy foods, such as sugars, flours, and processed foods create inflammation in the gut that then sends these signals to the brain and the rest of the body.
Where as, a diet rich in gut healthy and anti-inflammatory foods help support the gut and overall health of the body and brain.
Happiness, Alertness, Calm, Enhanced Memory
This is the mental state most of all us are looking for each day. A clear mind that is alert, ready, sharp and content. So how do we get it? The good news is you can help boost your mental health through your diet.
Role of Vitamins in body
Vitamins and minerals are essential nutrients that are necessary and needed in every process your body undertakes. As pertains to your brain, vitamins, for example, help with the synthesis of serotonin, known as the happy hormone, which plays a part in your overall happiness.
the amino acid tryptophan, which is converted to serotonin in the body promotes relaxation and anxiety relief
high-quality protein rich in essential amino acids helps produce the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which have the potential to improve mental health
antioxidants help reduce inflammation and prevent and repair damage to cells and improve brain health
vitamin E, an anti-oxidant, has been studied for its role in anxiety prevention
Role of Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 Fatty Acids are one of the most highly researched nutrients and have been shown to be essential for optimal brain health.
60% of the brain is made of fat, half of that is omega-3 fat
builds brain and nerve cells
cannot be made by your body
essential for learning and memory (11)
Foods to Eat to Promote Brain Health
In addition to moderate exercise, the foods we consume have been shown to impact our mental, brain and overall health.
For for a healthy brain and body focus on:
dark leafy greens
omega-3 rich foods such as fatty fish like salmon, tuna and sardines
seeds & nuts
Omit added sugars of any kind (even artificial), refined grains / flours and processed foods from your diet
Add Omega-3 rich, fatty fish such as salmon, sardines and oysters. Omega-3 Fatty acids are an area most Americans are deficient. It is recommended to consume fish 2-3 times per week
Add Flax, Chia, Pumpkin, and Hemp Seeds, and Walnuts to your diet (high in anti-oxidants plus fiber and omega-3s)
Add colorful fruits and vegetables to your mix of greens, especially those with purple, blue, red, orange, and yellow hues for their anti-oxidant qualities among others (oranges, bell peppers, carrots, sweet potatoes)
Bare in mind, It is not just the select anti-oxidants, omega-3s or an individual nutrient working their magic, it is the complex combination of the antioxidant and other beneficial micro- and macronutrients present in our foods that work together to provide benefits.
For the best results add a variety of these items to your plate at each meal. Make it a colorful mix, include greens, a rainbow of veggies and healthy fats and watch your brain light up. (18,19,20,21)