Anyone who has felt a boost of energy from caffeine, or dozed off after eating a Thanksgiving turkey knows that certain foods can trigger mood changes, at least short term. What most people fail to recognize is that some foods can have a lasting influence on mental wellbeing because what we eat is literally responsible for building our brain and keeping it functioning properly.
Unfortunately, over time North Americans have moved away from the nutrient-rich foods and toward more processed, refined options. Only one in four Canadians manages to eat three or more servings of veggies a day. The average adult consumes 26 teaspoons of sugar daily (it should be between six and nine teaspoons/day).
Studies show direct links between what we eat and our mental state. People who eat more nutrient-dense, whole foods are less likely to experience depression. We also know that people who eat diets that are high in processed foods, also known as the "Western diet," can lead to nutrient deficiencies which can increase risks for developing mental health disorders such as ADHD, autism and depression, and even suicide.
The GUT-BRAIN connection
Believe it or not, the gut has a brain of its own. It's called the enteric nervous system (ENS) and it communicates directly with our primary brain through the vagus nerve. Surprisingly 90 per cent of the messages communicated carry information from the gut to the brain, rather than the other way around. This might explain the new evidence that is coming to light that shows that irritation (such as diarrhea, bloating, pain, constipation) in the GI tract may lead to mood changes. This may help explain why people with IBS have higher levels of anxiety and depression.
There's been lots of discussion recently about the gut microbiome, an ecosystem which consists of several hundred different species of bacteria (about 10-100 trillion in total). An imbalance in this ecosystem (an overgrowth or 'bad' bacteria or a lack of diversity), can lead to negative symptoms connected to a range of diseases, including autism, obesity, depression, anxiety, allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma and other digestive and mental health issues.
One the other hand, good gut bacteria can lower stress levels and help produce serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and GABA. A balanced microbiome contributes to a healthy immune system and helps the body produce and/or absorb certain vitamins like vitamin K, B12 and folate.
Tips to maximize your mood
Based on the GUT-BRAIN connection, the best thing you can do to improve your mood and improve your health is to address your digestion and incorporate nutrients that support good mental health by following these tips:
- Remove any inflammatory foods. Avoid processed, refined foods and any foods that you may be intolerant or allergic to. Follow an anti-inflammatory diet, high in fruits, vegetables, fish fibre, and healthy fats, such as the Mediterranean diet.
- Control your blood sugar. Avoiding sugar and refined carbs and instead choose complex carbohydrates high in fibre like whole grains, veggies and beans. Complex carbs are also high in pre-biotics, which feed good gut bacteria.
- Eat protein at every meal. Amino acids in protein are precursors for neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Consume eggs, lean meat, turkey, chicken, and seafood.
- Don't be afraid of fat. Our brains are made up of 60 per cent fat. Include a balance of healthy fats and pay particular attention to including omega 3 fats from sources such as wild salmon, rainbow trout, herrings, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, flax seed, chia seeds, and walnuts.
- Eat foods high in phytonutrients and antioxidants. Eat the rainbow and a variety of plants -- as many different coloured fruits and veggies as possible, to help diversify the microbiome and increase your vitamin and mineral intake.
- Drink enough water. The brain cannot function properly without adequate hydration (poor concentration, alertness, attention), so start by dividing your body weight in half to determine how many ounces of water you should be drinking per day, then add more water as needed.
- Keep caffeine to a minimum. While caffeine gives a short term boost of adrenaline, it prevents absorption of key nutrients. Try green tea (especially high in antioxidants), herbal tea, or Dandy Blend instead.
- Get outside. Spending time outdoors is a great stress reducer and it will help ensure you get adequate amounts of vitamin D, which has an impact on nearly every cell in our body and is critical for good mental health.
- Supplement to fill any gaps. Start with a high quality, professional line multivitamin/mineral, fish oil, probiotics, curcumin, and vitamin D (if there is not enough in your multi).
- Control your stress. As we have seen anxiety can have a huge impact on gut health and inflammation. Incorporate relaxation techniques that help you better deal with stress, such as deep breathing, meditation, or exercise.
- Move your body. The more sedentary you are (5000 steps a day or less) the more anxiety and depression symptoms you may experience. Neurons need oxygen and the best way to increase its delivery is through exercise.
- Get enough sleep. The glymphatic system only works at clearing away debris and bringing nutrients into the brain when we are asleep. Try to get at least seven-eight hours.
The beneficial effects of healthier habits will be noticeable in no time. Not only will you notice the positive effects on your body -- more energy, fewer aches and pains, better sleep -- but your mental health will improve as well, leaving you refreshed, balanced, and ready to take on the world.
Michelle Vodrazka, Nutrition Coach and Personal Trainer, will share tips for healthier eating at the 2016 canfitpro world fitness expo at Metro Toronto Convention Centre August 12-14 (worldfitnessexpo.com)
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