Most of us eat for taste, convenience, our waistlines, or our personal philosophy, but rarely do we consider how the food we eat impacts our mental health. The medical establishment considers the brain to be something totally separate from the body. Doctors rarely make the connection between diet and mental health. However, nutrition may be even more important for your brain than for the rest of you. It’s a hungry little organ weighing in at just three pounds, yet your brain uses 20 percent of your daily energy expenditure.
There is ample evidence that symptoms of anxiety, depression, and attention disorders, and degenerative diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s can be dialed up or down depending on the food consumed. There are many ways food affects the brain. There are basic nutritional requirements that must be met to maintain the health of the brain. These nutrients are needed to protect and repair existing brain cells and create new ones.
Nutrients also provide the raw materials to form neurotransmitters like serotonin, GABA and dopamine, which are responsible for happiness, the ability to relax, and motivation. Foods can also contain substances like sugar and food additives that cause the brain harm. And some foods trigger reactions in only some people. Food allergies, intolerances, and sensitivities play a role in some conditions. A surprising example of this is the discovery that wheat is linked to schizophrenia.
While there are too many correlations between diet, nutrients, and mental health to cover them all in one article, here are some notable examples that illustrate how certain foods and specific nutrients can impact your mental health and well-being.
Fish Really Is Brain Food
We’ve all heard that fish is brain food and this is one cliche that’s actually true. Fish is the best dietary source of omega-3 essential fatty acids — possibly the single most important nutrient for the health of your brain. The deficiency of one specific omega-3, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is linked to depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. DHA protects the brain against age-related mental decline, and lowers the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Being low in DHA results in having a measurably smaller brain that ages faster than normal.
The healthiest fish are those that are high in omega-3s but low in mercury. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, the top three healthiest fish are Atlantic mackerel (caught in U.S. or Canadian waters), sardines (caught in U.S., Japanese, or Spanish waters) and wild salmon (caught in Alaska). If you don’t eat fish on a regular basis, fish oil supplements can fill this nutritional gap. Over 27,000 studies have been done on the health benefits of fish oil supplements. It can prevent and treat depression and improve overall emotional well-being by increasing the volume of areas of the brain that control mood.
Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are the most commonly prescribed antidepressants. Unfortunately they work for less than half of those who try them. Interestingly, when fish oil is taken along with an SSRI, it increases the chance that the medication will work.
Caffeine Induces Anxiety And Panic
While coffee and tea offer some definite health benefits, there’s a strong link between caffeine intake and anxiety. In fact, the latest edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s standard guide of mental disorders now considers caffeine-induced anxiety disorder a true mental disorder.
One study on the neuropsychiatric effects of caffeine published in BJPsych Advances, one of the world’s leading psychiatric journals, made this stunning indictment of caffeine: “Excessive caffeine ingestion leads to symptoms that overlap with those of many psychiatric disorders. Caffeine is implicated in the exacerbation of anxiety and sleep disorders, and people with eating disorders often misuse it. It antagonises adenosine receptors, which may potentiate dopaminergic activity and exacerbate psychosis. In psychiatric in-patients, caffeine has been found to increase anxiety, hostility and psychotic symptoms. Assessment of caffeine intake should form part of routine psychiatric assessment and should be carried out before prescribing hypnotics. Gradual reduction in intake or gradual substitution with caffeine-free alternatives is probably preferable to abrupt cessation. Decaffeinated beverages should be provided on psychiatric wards.”
Previously it was hard for researchers to study panic attacks since it can be difficult to observe attacks as they happened. That was until it was discovered that caffeine can be used to reliably induce panic attacks. By giving study participants who are predisposed to anxiety 480 mg of caffeine, up to 61 percent experienced a panic attack “on demand.”
Vitamin B12 Deficiency And Mental Health
You might well think that vitamin deficiencies are a thing of the past, but that’s not true. Of course your brain needs adequate amounts of all essential vitamins, but one especially is linked to mental health — vitamin B12.
Vitamin B12 deficiency is widespread, affecting 40 percent of all adults. Risk factors include age (50+), digestive disorders, excessive coffee drinking (4+ cups), and the use of both over-the-counter antacids and acid suppressing medications. Vitamin B12 deficiency can manifest as depression, anxiety, brain fog, memory loss, mental confusion, and even schizophrenia. If not addressed, long-term deficiency can lead to serious neurological manifestations including permanent brain damage, dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Vitamin B12 is found almost exclusively in animal foods, but the solution for deficiency isn’t always as simple as eating more B12-rich foods. Absorption issues are often the underlying cause, with an estimated 10-30 percent of adults over the age of 50 having difficulty absorbing vitamin B12 from food. And if you are a vegetarian, you are at an even greater risk. The majority of vegetarians are at risk, with 64 percent of lacto-vegetarians and 92 percent of vegans being B12-deficient. If you’re a vegan, I recommend you visit VeganHealth.org where you’ll find comprehensive, unbiased information about B12 and the vegan diet. If you have any doubt that you have a B12 deficiency, whatever the cause, get your B12 levels checked to know where you stand and then supplement accordingly.
Low Magnesium Linked To Anxiety, Depression, And More
Magnesium has been called the “master mineral” since it’s needed for over 300 metabolic functions. It’s estimated that 80 percent of us are deficient in magnesium, since it’s largely missing from our soil and thus our food supply. Classic signs of magnesium deficiency are feeling “tired but wired,” getting leg cramps (especially at night), insomnia, and craving chocolate. Magnesium has profound effects on mental health, with deficiency linked to anxiety, ADHD, depression, aggression, bipolar disorder, panic attacks, and schizophrenia.
If you suspect you have low magnesium, eat more foods that contain magnesium such as leafy green vegetables, seeds, and nuts. Another way to get more magnesium is to drink mineral waters such as San Pellegrino or Perrier. Since it’s hard to get adequate magnesium from diet alone, consider trying magnesium threonate, a little-known form of magnesium that readily enters the brain making it particularly helpful for anxiety, attention problems, and depression.
Turmeric For Depression And Alzheimer’s
All herbs and spices bring a unique nutritional profile to the table, but turmeric is a standout. This spice contains hundreds of compounds with the main active ingredient being curcumin. Most studies have been done on curcumin supplements rather than turmeric, since it is easier to standardize its formulation. Curcumin works as well for depression as the popular antidepressant Prozac. When taken along with Prozac, curcumin works synergistically to enhance the effects of the drug.
Turmeric is a regular part of Indian cuisine. It’s used in cooking and is an ingredient in curry seasoning. Seniors in one area of India who regularly get turmeric in their diet have the lowest rate of Alzheimer’s in the world. Turmeric works by reducing brain inflammation and breaking up brain plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
Should you try to get all the turmeric you need from food alone or is it better to take a curcumin supplement? Dr. Andrew Weil, founder of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, offers this sound advice “…until proven otherwise in head to head studies, whole plants are usually a better choice than isolates. On the other hand, curcumin appears to have a more rapid and dramatic effect, and may be the better choice as a therapeutic (rather than a preventative) preparation.”
Healthy Oils For Brain Health Protection
It’s recommended you take your car in for an oil change every 3,000 miles or so. But how about you? Is it time for an oil change for your brain? Your brain is largely made up of fat, 60% by volume. Your brain cell membrane integrity largely depends on the quality of fats consumed. Healthy brain cell membranes control what’s allowed in (nutrients) and what gets out (toxins). When unhealthy trans fats get integrated into brain cell membranes, they become less efficient filters. Brain cells even live shorter lives.
We’ve been deceived into believing that vegetable oils like canola, safflower, soy, and sunflower are healthy, but these oils are chemically unstable and readily turn into unhealthy trans fats. They are also high in omega-6 fatty acids, a major cause of inflammation. Vegetable oils not only increase the risk of most major diseases (like cancer and heart disease), they are bad for mental health. They increase the risk of depression by up to 50 percent. Alarmingly, they are even linked to aggression and higher homicide rates.
Simply switching from unhealthy vegetable oils to olive oil decreases the risk of depression by almost 50 percent. Conversely, the more trans fats consumed, the higher the risk of depression. Olive oil also contains oleocanthal, an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant compound that clears the brain of the beta-amyloid proteins associated with Alzheimer’s.
Don’t take the “magic bullet” approach and just add olive oil to an unhealthy diet. You’ll get the best results when you include olive oil in a Mediterranean-based diet, which is widely considered the healthiest diet on the planet. Eating this way reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s by up to 40 percent. A little red wine probably won’t hurt either!
Another brain healthy fat is coconut oil. In parts of the world where coconut is traditionally consumed, it’s so revered that it’s known as the “tree of life.” But in the West it’s been demonized as a source of supposedly unhealthy saturated fats. Fortunately the tide is starting to turn and coconut oil can now be found in any health food store. But don’t expect your doctor to recommend it — the mainstream medical establishment has not yet caught up with this idea.
Coconut oil owes most of its brain boosting properties to its unique composition, including medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). It’s been shown to be as effective for depression as prescription medications. But where coconut oil really holds promise is in treating neurological disorders. Dr. Mary Newport, one of the most outspoken proponents of coconut oil, reports that coconut oil has proven successful in treating many neurological disorders including Parkinson’s, stroke, traumatic brain injury, Down syndrome, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and Huntington’s.
Coconut oil has also been shown to reduce the beta-amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s. One of the most exciting finds occurred when patients with mild cognitive impairment (MCI), often a precursor of dementia and Alzheimer’s, were given MCT oil as part of a research study. Participants experienced significant improved memory recall almost immediately after taking just one dose.
By making some small changes in your diet — like replacing canola oil or adding turmeric to your spice rack — you can make some big improvements in your mental health now and protect your brain later in life as well.