Your Brain on Food: The Surprising Role of Nutrition in Mental Health

Your brain is always “on”. It is the command center for all of your thoughts and movements, your breathing and heartbeat, your mood and sensations. It is working hard 24/7, even while you’re asleep! This means your brain needs a constant supply of “fuel”. Think of it like gasoline that powers a car, except that brain fuel comes from the foods you eat. And, what’s in that fuel makes all the difference.

You’ve probably already witnessed some effects of food on your brain: a sugar rush after an ice cream binge or a mental fog from hunger when you accidentally worked through lunch. These are short term effects, easily resolved with the appropriate dietary course of action (put the ice cream away!). But what we eat also influences the brain in the long term. In fact, what you eat directly affects your cognitive processes and emotions, and ultimately, your mental health.

The field of “Nutritional Psychiatry/Psychology” is relatively new. Only in the last decade have scientific studies begun to establish a link between overall diet quality and common mental disorders, like depression and anxiety 1. Results of such studies have suggested that higher intakes of a “healthy” diet (i.e., fruit, vegetables, fish, and whole grains) is associated with a reduced likelihood of depression 2. Conversely, an unhealthy diet (defined by a low intake of healthy, nutrient-rich foods, OR by indulging too often in processed, sugary and fat-laden foods) is linked to mental health disturbances 3. This is true for adults as well as children and adolescents 2. And, it’s true regardless of physical activity and smoking, as well as socioeconomic status, family conflict, and familial/social support 3. There’s no avoiding it: unhealthy diets are associated with mental health problems.

What does this mean for you?

Just like your daily regimen that keeps your heart and skin healthy, you should also be mindful of nourishing your brain – even if you don’t suffer from mental illness. Don’t worry, adopting an entirely new dietary lifestyle isn’t your only option for improving your diet…

  • Eat more healthy fats: Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids don’t just come in fish-oil supplements. Think salmon, herring, sardines, and anchovies. For the seafood shy, flaxseed, walnuts, and eggs can give you a boost!
  • Get more protein: A healthy brain needs to create a steady stream of neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers in the brain, to function properly. The building blocks for these neurotransmitters are molecules called amino acids that come from the protein in our diet. Get high quality protein from pasture-raised meats, eggs, dairy, and beans. And, nutritionists say it’s a good idea to begin the day with a generous helping of your favorite power protein. Fire up the grill tonight; savor leftovers in the morning.
  • Avoid sugar highs: But don’t think of sugar as the enemy. Glucose is actually the primary source of energy for every cell in the body. And because your brain works so hard, it’s the most energy-demanding organ you have. In fact, it consumes one-half of all the sugar energy in your body! The key is that the supply of glucose to the brain needs to be slow and steady, without the peaks and valleys caused by the types of sugar found in junk food. Stick to sugars that are found in vegetables, whole grains, and fruits. Dessert doesn’t have to be sinful – swap out that Neapolitan ice cream for fresh strawberries with a *hint* of chocolate sauce.

The new field of Nutritional Psychiatry is only just starting to produce studies that can influence public health recommendations and clinical practice. But one message is clear: our diet has a profoundly influential impact on our brain and consequently, our mental health 4. Whether you are living with a mental health diagnosis or wanting to maintain an already healthy body and mind, it is important to talk to your doctor about the foods you eat (and those you might not get enough of). Don’t be shy about encouraging your doctor to take a nutrition-minded approach to keep that brain of yours in tip top shape. And, since everything is connected, doing so may well clear up other problems outside of your head. You know they say, an apple a day….

References

1 F. N. Jacka, “Nutritional Psychiatry: Where to Next?,” eBioMedicine, vol. 17, pp. 24-29, 2017.

2 J. Lai, S. Hiles, A. Bisquera, A. Hure, M. McEvoy and J. Attia, “A systematic review and meta-analysis of dietary patterns and depression in community-dwelling adults,” Am. J. Clin. Nutr., vol. 99, no. 1, pp. 181-197, 2013.

3 S. McMartin, F. Jacka and I. Colman, “The association between fruit and vegetable consumption and mental health disorders: evidence from five waves of a national survey of Canadians,” Prev. Med., vol. 56, no. 3-4, pp. 225-230, 2013.

4 A. O’Neil, S. Quirk, S. Housden, S. Brennan, L. Williams, J. Pasco, M. Berk and F. Jacka, “Relationship between diet and mental health in children and adolescents: a systematic review,” Am. J. Public Health, vol. 104, no. 10, pp. e31-e42, 2014.

5 F. Jacka, C. Rothon, S. Taylor, M. Berk and S. Stansfeld, “Diet quality and mental health problems in adolescents from East London: a prospective study,” Soc. Psychiatry Psychiatr. Epidemiol., vol. 48, no. 8, pp. 1279-1306, 2013.

6 S. Dash, A. O’Neil and J. FN, “Diet and common mental disorders: the imperative to translate evidence into action,” Front. Public Health, vol. 4, p. 81, 2016.

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Morgan Ingemanson is a PhD Candidate at the University of California, Irvine studying neurobiology. She specializes in functional neuroimaging and has been investigating the use of robotic devices for rehabilitating motor function after stroke. She is interested in mapping CNS repair and developing therapeutic interventions for neurorecovery.