Humans have been on earth for over 5 million years out of which 99% of the time we were hunter-gatherers foraging fruits and vegetables and occasionally wild animals. At the same time, humans lived a life that was completely in sync with nature- both with the seasons as well as diurnal rhythm (day and night).
Today, what we eat is vastly different from that of our ancestors and one thing has become painfully clear- our brains (and our bodies) have not managed to keep up with all these massive changes. As a result, inspite of the amazing changes and progress that we have made in terms of longevity, we have a looming mental health crisis on our hands- ranging from mood disorders, anxiety, depression and even Alzheimers and dementia. The increase in the lifespan of modern humans is not necessarily being associated with high quality health especially in old age.
Food as medicine
Current nutrient research is proving what we have known intuitively all along- the quality of our food affects our mood. We pay a price in terms of mental and physical health when our diet consists of nutrient poor foods. Also, the high energy, nutrient poor foods displace the wholesome foods that your brain and body need.
What often goes unnoticed is the fact that out of all the organs in your body, the brain is one of the most easily damaged by a poor diet. The only way your brain can function optimally is by receiving the nutrients that are broken down from the foods that you eat. Proteins from meat, fish, legumes are broken down into amino acids and serve as backbone of your brain cells. Vegetables, whole grains and fruits provide carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals that energise the brain. Healthy fats from fish, nuts and seeds provide omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids which make the neurons (nerve cells) work optimally and supports the immune system as well.
Apart from proteins, carbohydrates and fats, there is another category of powerful compounds which plants produce- PHYTONUTRIENTS. These are responsible for the vivid colours, smells and flavours of different fruits and vegetables like berries, citrus fruits and others.
In this post I share with you how you can use foods to influence and boost your mood by nourishing your brain. While it is important to note that mood can be influenced by many factors such as poor sleep, genetics, environment, stress, it is also certainly true that certain foods have been shown to improve overall brain health and certain types of mood disorders.
Key foods that nourish your brain
Yes, water. It is involved in every chemical reaction that occurs in your brain. Your brain required a delicate balance of water and other elements like minerals and salts to work efficiently. Even a small amount of dehydration can cause a number of issues like reduced energy, brain fog, headaches and mood swings
One of the most important things that I do for my own mental wellbeing is starting my day with a glass of water (with lime) first thing in the morning. Also, I ensure that I do not have more than 1-2 cups of coffee during the day, listen to my body and have enough water before I become thirsty and end the day with a cup of herbal tea.
GOOD QUALITY OILS AND FATS
The fat that is found in our brain is a different kind of fat from the one that we usually refer to which is storage fat. Structural fat is what your brain needs as building blocks to support its structural health. These are certain types of Polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) which are found mostly in oils from plant and marine sources; especially in fatty fish like salmon, algae and some nuts and seeds.
These are the only types of fats that your brain needs but cannot make on its own. This is especially true for omega 3, omega 6 found in fish, nuts, seeds and eggs. Since omega 6 fats are abundantly available in processed foods, fatty animal foods as well as vegetable oils from canola, corn, soy, peanuts and sunflower, it is the omega 3 that you need to focus on. Omega 3 are the richest in marine sources like salmon and other fatty fish. It is also found in plant sources especially flaxseeds, walnuts, chia seeds.
In my own kitchen, I make sure to include the above mentioned sources of omega 3 in our daily diet. At the same time, I also opt for good quality oils for cooking like cold pressed coconut oil/mustard oil/sesame oil (traditional cooking oils), olive oil and ghee.
Proteins are complex molecules that are required for the structure, function and regulation of the brain’s networks. They are made up of amino acids and are essential for almost every function on your body including those that act as neurotransmitters. These are chemical messengers that your brain uses for signalling, communication and processing information.
Proteins from animal sources are complete- they provide all the essential amino acids that your body needs. However, plant sources like legumes and grains, nuts and seeds also contain good amounts of proteins.
In particular, a deficiency in the neurotransmitter serotonin is associated with mood changes, issued with sleep and appetite regulation as well as memory impairment. Infact the production of serotonin in the brain depends on the availability of the amino acid tryptophan.
Tryptophan rich foods include chia seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, prunes, seaweed, raw cacao (chocolate) and edamame. Animal foods like natural unprocessed yogurt, chicken and fish are also good sources.
I make sure that I include different varieties of nuts and seeds including the ones mentioned above to ensure a steady supply of tryptophan-rich foods on a regular basis. It helps to keep my energy steady and my mood balanced throughout my day.
Your brain requires a tremendous amount of energy to perform and it uses glucose (broken down from carbohydrates) to do so. This glucose comes from the carbohydrates in your diet. However, it’s entry is tightly regulated depending on the requirement. The issue is that when most people think of carbohydrates, they think of refined processed foods- pasta, bread, white flour and baked goods.
However, good quality carbohydrates that your brain (and body) requires are actually natural sources from nature- fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Also, when we consume excess glucose from nutrient poor sources of foods, we end up with high blood sugar levels which has a profound adverse effect on your brain as you age.
Foods which are complex carbohydrates are naturally high in fibre and results in lower sugar spikes since they take time to break down. These are foods that I always have in my kitchen and include different coloured vegetables, root vegetables like sweet potatoes and yams, legumes like lentils (daals), chickpeas/rajma and whole grains (millets, oats).
Food for thought
As you would have realised by now, food does much more for us than merely providing us with “energy” or filling our stomachs when we are hungry. Indeed, “food” is the main tool I use as a Health Coach in my practice for my clients and in my own life.
By helping my clients change their diet, they are able to transform their health- lose weight, improve their health outcomes by healing from their chronic health conditions using food as medicine.
The next time you are feeling blue or experiencing mood swings and would like to find a natural way to lift your spirits, instead of reaching for calorie rich but nutrient poor foods like ice cream or other desserts, aim for wholesome foods which nourish your brain (and your body).
you won’t be able to control many things in your life but you can certainly control what you put in your body