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Mental Health Awareness: 5 Mood Boosting Ways Nutrition Affects Brain Health

by Laurent O.

May 14, 2021


Take time for you 💚

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week 🧠

One of our values here at GreenJinn is Caring for our Community. That includes everyone that uses our app (you guys) but also us as a team. In line with this, today, we have a guest blog post from Alisha (a Level 4 Nutritionist and Neuroscience student!) at Scrambled Health, who will be sharing with you all five ways that nutrition affects your mental health 🌱

Looking after mental health has been a prominent topic at the centre of each COVID-19 lockdown, with a skyrocketing number of individuals trying their hand at meditation, engaging in physical activity, and even eating healthier.  There is no doubt that all these forms of self care can influence an individual’s mental wellbeing with a growing body of evidence supporting the role nutrition may have on overall brain health.  Within this article, we will highlight the ways in which food can affect your mood as an ode to a very important Mental Health Week this year.

(We need this now more than ever!)

1. The Tale of Two Brains

The gut-brain connection has been all the rage this past decade, and really kick started the ‘good food for good mood’ shift in mental and nutritional health research.  The brain and the gut are intimately linked with evidence suggesting gut flora, or the bacteria found within the gut, to be implicated in mental health.  

In fact, these bacteria are so essential to mental health, that they even help produce neurotransmitters – the very chemicals that transmit signals throughout the brain.An example of such is serotonin, a neurotransmitter involved in feelings of happiness, and mood stability. Serotonin is found and produced mostly in the gut, with nutrition being a key component of its bioavailability.  Tryptophan, an amino acid gained through dietary intake alone, is a precursor for serotonin with some studies suggesting that a lack of tryptophan may contribute to depressive symptoms. 

You may remember the popular myth that the reason you’re so sleepy after a Sunday lunch or Thanksgiving dinner is because of the turkey or chicken’s high tryptophan content.  While tryptophan may not actually make you drowsy, many high protein foods, such as those consumed on holidays, certainly are rich in the amino acid.  Other high protein foods that are particularly high in tryptophan include milk, soy, nuts, and seeds.

2. Feeding the Gut

Understanding the importance of the gut-brain connection is essential to understanding the link between mental health and nutrition.  Whilst many know the importance of a healthy diet, the concept of pro and prebiotics is where it gets confusing.  

Pre and probiotics have the capability to alter or feed the bacteria in your gut, with consequential implications on physical symptoms of stress, mental illness, and overall brain health.  As stated, these gut bacteria are essential in gut-brain communication and the production of neurotransmitters so it is imperative that we understand how to keep the trillions of gut microbes happy and healthy.

Prebiotics are dietary fibres that your gut cannot digest, but can act as food for healthy gut bacteria.  Common prebiotic foods which you can include into your diet include bananas, garlic, beets, soy, beans, artichokes, and honey.  

Probiotics are live bacteria or yeast cultures healthy to the gut and hold a large variety of health benefits.  In addition to probiotic supplements, there are many fermented foods that are easy additions to any diet including yoghurt or kefir, kimchi, kombucha, some cheeses, tempeh, pickles, sourdough bread, and miso.

3. The “Anti” Foods

Do you remember the research that always seemed to be on 2000’s news that ‘Wine is good for you!’? This very ‘French Paradox’ take on scientific literature seems slightly too good to be true, and while the findings are certainly taken out of context, the basis that anti-inflammatory foods are beneficial still stands – you may just be better off eating the grape directly! Inflammation, and anti-inflammatory foods, are of particular importance when investigating mental health and nutrition as mental illness is associated to inflammatory processes, with diet holding a modulating effect.  A diet that is routinely nutrient-deficient, highly processed and unnecessarily high in calories shows higher levels of inflammation, and greater risk of developing mental illness.

On the contrary, foods with anti-inflammatory properties, such those with antioxidants like berries, dark chocolate, kale, and red cabbage, may pose as a possible intervention for some mental health disorders such as depression.

4. The Fat & Carb Intervention

Both fats and carbs have each received their time in the ‘villian maco’ diet fad spotlight.  While some saturated fats and refined sugars have neuroinflammatory features, both are essential to brain health with the type of fat or carb being an important feature to overall health and wellbeing. 

Carbohydrates provide energy in the form of glucose which is essential for neuronal functioning.  Low-to-no carb diets may ultimately affect cognitive performance.  Fats, or lipids, on the other hand hold large importance in the structure and function of the brain.  Certain dietary fats, such as polyunsaturated fatty acid’s omega 3 and 6 are associated with neuroprotective effects against aging and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimers. 

Brain beneficial complex carbohydrates that can be easily incorporated into your diet include the pseudo grain Quinoa, oats, bananas, sweet potatoes, beans, and fruits. 

Healthy foods containing fatty acids which are beneficial to your diet are, but not limited to, avocados, eggs, nuts, chia seeds, olive oil, and fatty fish such as mackerel, salmon or trout.

5. Being Mindful

As mentioned, the gut and the brain are intimately connected.  More than 500 million neurons, or brain cells, connect the brain and the gut.  The biggest nerve along the gut-brain axis is the vagus nerve within the parasympathetic nervous system and is observed to be a moderator of both psychiatric and gastrointestinal disordersIf there is stress, the vagus nerve may be inhibited, which can in turn increase inflammation, decrease digestion, and if prolonged, have detrimental effects on the homeostasis of the gut brain axis.  Reducing overall stress such as through yoga and meditation, or even simply making meals a relaxing time, can have positive implications for overall well being. 

Sitting down to eat, avoiding eating ‘on the go’, eating with others, and incorporating mindfulness into your meals if possible are habits that can be easy to implement and have lasting effects on both physical and mental health.

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