In the UK, 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year. In Canada, by the age of 40, half of the population will experience a mental illness like depression or anxiety.
From a young age many of us are taught that eating healthily is good for our physical health, but it turns out it also significantly affects our mental health. A healthy, well-balanced diet can help boost our mental health, help us think clearly and feel more alert, and improve concentration and attention span.
There’s no debate anymore that the mind and body are connected: those with a mental illness are often at a higher risk of developing chronic conditions, and vice versa. Ultimately, how we nourish our bodies can have a significant impact on our mental health. Therefore, it’s important that we take a more holistic and comprehensive approach to our wellbeing. Research shows that certain food can help reduce stress and anxiety, improve overall well-being and help us cope during challenging times.
Dr. Uma Naidoo, director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, faculty member at Harvard Medical School and author of “This Is Your Brain on Food,” counsels people on how to integrate foods and nutritional habits into their lives to improve their mental well being. She says that what you eat can have a significant effect on your mental health. Evidence increasingly shows that diets high in processed foods can increase anxiety and ideally you want to be reducing processed foods and sugar.
When making the choice to eat healthier, it’s about tweaking what you eat today to include more of the right foods for you and understanding that it’s not an overnight fix or cure. If you start with one small habit, it’s typically more sustainable, and you are more likely to stay with it. And when we start to incorporate healthier habits and we feel a little bit better as a result, we want to do more.
According to Dr. William Li, author of Eat to Beat Disease, we are not eating enough “good” whole, plant based foods, and we are eating too many of the “bad” hyper-processed foods.
Here are the types of foods that Naidoo and Dr. William Li say that you can eat to help boost mental health, and reduce stress and anxiety:
Omega-3 fatty acids
Studies have shown that consuming omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat that’s responsible for building brain cells, can reduce symptoms of anxiety, Naidoo says. According to a review published in the Sept. 14, 2018, JAMA Network Open, Omega-3 fatty acid supplements may help ease anxiety symptoms in people diagnosed with a range of physical and mental health problems.
Animal experiments and clinical intervention studies indicate that omega-3 fatty acids also have anti-inflammatory properties and, therefore, might be useful in the management of inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. Another bonus of eating more omega-3′s is that they have been shown to help people increase the length and quality of sleep.
Oily fish, like salmon, is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids. For people who eat a plant-based diet, omega-3 fatty acids can be found in walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds and pumpkin seeds. EPA and DHA are the two primary omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil. Because people often fall short of their recommended fish intake, fish oil supplements may be a convenient alternative to give you the health benefits of omega-3s.
Turmeric’s medicinal properties have been known in the east for centuries – it is commonly used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat liver and gallbladder problems, to stop bleeding, to relieve chest congestion and menstrual pain, and to treat depression and stress. Unsurprisingly, it’s catching on in the West too now. Curcumin, the bioactive compound found in turmeric, has antioxidant and inflammatory properties that can help your brain and mood and studies suggest it can reduce depressive symptoms and inflamation.
Research has shown that more than 130 million Americans are affected by inflammation as it’s “a major player in almost every chronic disease,” says Lilli Link, MD, in an article for Parsley Health.
Inflammation is a process where your body’s white blood cells protect you from body invaders like bacteria and viruses. But some diseases will trigger inflammation when there are no invaders to fight off, which causes your immune system to act like regular tissues are infected and significantly damages your body.
Naidoo suggests adding 1-2 teaspoons to a few meals throughout your day. It can be added in smoothies, teas, soups and salad dressings. Turmeric supplements are available at local health and food stores or online. They’re also available in tincture or extract forms. If you take it in supplement form, make sure a high percentage of cucurmin is included in each supplement — around 95 percent is ideal. Supplements combining curcumin with piperine are one of the most research-supported options for depression.
Dietary fiber is important because it keeps you full, aids in digestion and studies have shown that high-fiber diets are linked to reduced risk of anxiety, stress and depression. It is thought that the gut affects the brain and so eating more fibre might help the gut and therefore protect against stress, anxiety and depression. Fiber can calm down brain inflammation, which according to Naidoo tends to be high in people with anxiety. Fibre is known to be beneficial in a number of other ways, including reducing the risk of heart disease, bowel cancer and diabetes.
Pumpkin seeds are high in fibwr. Many fruits and vegetables, like apples, bananas, broccoli, avocados and artichoke hearts are high in fiber. Legumes, like beans, lentils and chickpeas, and grains like brown rice are also great sources of dietary fiber.
Research has shown that there’s a relationship between your gut health and your brain health. According to Naidoo, prebiotic and probiotic foods can help balance and nourish your gut bacteria, which in turn suppress your stress response and reduce anxiety.
Prebiotics and probiotics can be obtained through food. Examples include fermented foods like plain yogurt with live and active cultures, kimchi, kombucha, miso and apple cider vinegar. You can also take them in the supplement form.
According to Naidoo, out of all the vitamins Americans are lacking, vitamin D is at the top of the list. In fact, 40% of Americans are deficient in this vitamin. In studies, vitamin D deficiency has been linked to anxiety, depression and decreased cognitive functioning.
The right balance of vitamin D, provides a few roles, including decreasing inflammation and protecting neurons. “Inadequate vitamin D levels over time can lead to issues in the skeletal system, the teeth, immune function, heart health, and mental health,” says Laura Poe Mathes, RD.
According to Dr. Naidoo, “Vitamin D is key for a healthy immune system and plays a role in the prevention and treatment for many other conditions such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, hypertension, infections, cognitive impairment, cancer and glucose intolerance. As a Nutritional Psychiatrist, we also know it has been shown to help mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and fatigue.”
The amount of vitamin D you need will vary depending on age, race, season, sun exposure, pre-existing conditions, and many other factors. As with everything regarding nutrition, it’s difficult to generalize and has to be approached on an individual level, Dr. Naidoo explains.
While we can get vitamin D with sun exposure, plenty of healthy foods you’re probably already eating contain vitamin D, like egg yolks, salmon and mushrooms. In many cases a supplement might be necessary, but it’s important to consult with a specialist on the amount based on your levels.
Green tea contains an amino acid called theanine, which has anti-anxiety and calming effects and may increase the production of serotonin and dopamine. And evidence of long-term health benefits is emerging, too: drinking at least half a cup of green tea a day seems to lower the risk of developing depression and dementia. It also boasts many other health properties that are anti-cancer, anti-viral, anti-obesity, and anti-bacterial.
Blueberries are incredibly healthy and nutritious. Along with many physical health benefits, blueberries have also been found to improve mental health and brain function. A study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that adding blueberry juice to the diet of older adults improved memory recall and reduced depression symptoms.
Blueberries are also believed to have one of the highest antioxidant levels of all common fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants protect your body from free radicals, which are unstable molecules that can damage your cells and contribute to aging and diseases, like cancer.
As with everything regarding nutrition and mental and physical health, it’s difficult to generalize and has to be approached on an individual level.
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