Good mood foods. 9 nutrients to feed your brain.

There are many factors that contribute to mental health such as relationships, being able to cope under stress and the balance of our brain’s neurotransmitters. However, mental health isn’t just about psychology and behaviour, nutrition plays a crucial role too in the health of our brains and the way they function.

The food you eat can have a huge impact on the way your brain functions and the way you feel.

There are nutrients that enhance memory and cognitive function, as well as foods that give you better energy and motivation, contributing to how you feel overall.

There are also foods that are detrimental to brain health and emotional regulation, such as sugar.

You know the kid at the party who ate too many sweets? The one rolling around screaming twenty minutes later? Well that’s how sugar, for example, affects your brain. Blood sugar fluctuations cause irritability, mood swings and erratic behaviours as the body struggles desperately to find its balance. Sugar has become so socially acceptable that its role in mood dysregulation is often overlooked.

Nutrition plays a crucial role in mental health and there are certain foods and nutrients that can positively address mood-specific issues such as anxiety, depression, attention and sleep issues.

There are foods that can help prevent memory decline in later life, as well as foods that protect the brain from oxidative damage. Mental health is a complex issue and nutrition has an important role to play in both treatment and prevention of mental health disorders.

Optimal brain health. Foods to avoid:

Generally the foods that are detrimental to brain health are pro-inflammatory foods, foods that create oxidative stress and neurotoxins like aspartame.

  • Refined sugar
  • Alcohol
  • Processed fats, such as trans fats
  • Caffeine
  • Aspartame
  • Synthetic additives

9 important nutrients for brain health and where to get them:

1. Fruits and vegetables

They contain an array of beneficial phytonutrients and antioxidants. Aim for 8-10 a day to help moods.

2. Omega-3 fats

Good oils lower inflammation and provide the raw material for healthy nerve cell membranes and serotonin, the feel-good neurotransmitter.

Good sources include wild salmon, trout, sardines, anchovies, avocados, almond, walnuts, seeds and cold-pressed seed oils.

3. Antioxidants

Antioxidants play an important role in the health of the whole body, including brain health. Eating a wide variety of colours of vegetables provides a wide variety of antioxidants.

Antioxidant-rich foods include blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, cherries, cranberries, pomegranates, cacao powder and dark chocolate, green tea, walnuts, sweet potato, carrots, Brazil nuts and green leafy veg.

4. Magnesium

Magnesium has been hailed as “nature’s tranquilliser” for its ability to calm the nervous system. It’s particularly useful for sleep disorders and anxiety.

Magnesium-rich foods include green leafy vegetables, almonds, quinoa, cashews and pumpkin seeds.

5. Zinc

Zinc plays an important role in the synthesis of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, as well as being a potent antioxidant.

Zinc-rich foods include seafood especially oysters, asparagus, egg yolks, sesame and pumpkin seeds, fish, grass-fed beef, lamb, spinach, chickpeas, cashews and shiitake mushrooms.

6. B vitamins

Vitamin B3 (Niacin), B6, B12 and folate play crucial roles as co-factors in the synthesis of neurotransmitters. Research suggests that B vitamins “significantly reduce symptoms associated with schizophrenia - more so than standard drug treatments alone”, according to Dr. Mercola. In his article he speaks with one of the worldwide authorities on niacin and its use in psychiatric conditions, Dr. Andrew Saul, editor-in-chief of the Orthomolecular News Service and author of ‘Niacin - The Real Story’ - a fascinating body of research that documents many clinical examples of the important role niacin plays in mental health.

Foods rich in B vitamins include: green leafy vegetables, asparagus, lentils, eggs, cauliflower, broccoli, sardines, lamb, grass-fed beef, tuna and salmon.

7. Probiotics

The gut-brain-axis is currently being studied extensively. It’s all about the link between the health of the gut and the health of the brain and mood regulation. According to David Perlmutter , M.D., editor-in-chief of the upcoming scientific textbook The Microbiome and the Brain, “The digestive system, and specifically the intestines and their resident bacteria, are playing an incredible role in keeping the body healthy,” and that, “The gut is critically involved in regulating inflammation, the underlying mechanism related to our most dreaded brain conditions like Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and multiple sclerosis.”

Probiotic-rich foods include kimchi, kefir, saurekraut, miso, kombucha, live yogurt and fermented vegetables.

8. Prebiotics

These are foods that feed the probiotics in your gut. One way of increasing and supporting your microbiome is to eat prebiotic-rich foods.

Prebiotic-rich foods include asparagus, artichokes, chicory, garlic, onions, leeks, root veggies like squash, sweet potato, turnips, carrots and beetroot, cabbage and dandelion greens.

9. Tryptophan

Tryptophan is an amino acid that is used to make the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin, which is needed for mood and pain regulation, appetite and craving control, as well as healthy sleep patterns. Tryptophan-rich foods are best eaten with slow-release carbohydrates, as insulin is required for tryptophan to cross the blood-brain barrier.

Tryptophan-rich foods include turkey, chickpeas, eggs, nuts, seeds, seafood and bananas.

The stress response and its role in how you feel As well as ensuring you are eating the foods listed above, it’s crucial that lifestyle factors are addressed which could be contributing to your quality of life and how you feel. Stress plays a huge role in how our bodies function, and in today’s world many people are running around in a constant state of fight or flight, causing adrenal imbalances, anxiety, insomnia and a host of other issues.

The body’s stress response is a clever mechanism designed to save you in times of physical threat, yet today our stress response isn’t just kicking-in in times of emergency, it keeps us on high alert during traffic jams, deadlines at work, relationship issues, financial concerns and all the pressures that come with our modern lifestyles. Our ancestors simply didn’t have the constant onslaught of stressors and information overload that we have today, and it’s believed our bodies cannot deal with it.

Holistic health involves looking at as many factors as possible that may be contributing to ill health and addressing them one by one.

Support your mental health holistically:

  • Get a good night’s sleep.
  • Eat a diet rich in brain-supporting nutrients.
  • Address your stress.
  • Learn relaxation techniques.
  • Get into nature more.
  • Avoid sugar and refined white carbohydrates to keep blood sugar levels balanced.
  • Avoid recreational drugs and stimulants.
  • Eat quality protein with each meal and snack.
  • See a nutritional therapist to get a bespoke plan to address your own specific needs.

Walk the path of wellness

Reaching a state of physical and mental health involves commitment and changing habits that no longer serve you. Sometimes the priority may be addressing underlying biochemical imbalances, such as adrenal fatigue or hormonal issues. Sometimes it’s about correcting nutritional deficiencies or eating a diet to regulate moods. Quality herbs and supplements may be needed to provide further support to the body and mind, such as high dose magnesium before bed to enhance sleep, or a special adrenal formula to buffer the stress response. No two people are the same and each person has their own unique requirements, so working with a professional practitioner is advised to help you find out exactly what you need to do to walk your own path of wellness.

Article by Jo Rowkins DipNT MBANT, Nutritional Therapist