You are what you eat. And not only that, you think based on what you eat as well. We’re learning more and more about the effect foods have on mood, how we think, and whether one gets dementia in later life. Most of us have a go-to comfort food or reach for certain foods when stressed. But what those foods are can impact your brain and mental well-being.
Your brain is continuously working, even when you sleep. As a result, it needs a continuous supply of nutrients. While the main form of energy the brain uses is sugar, other nutrients are just as important. These include vitamins, omega-3 fats and antioxidants. All these nutrients need to come from your diet. Therefore, what you eat affects what nutrients your brain gets and how your brain works.
Foods Affect Your Mood and Mental Well-being
When stressed or tired, what type of food do you reach for? If you’re like most people, you reach for foods either high in sugar or fat (or both). And there’s a reason for this. When stressed, your body reacts as if it’s under harm. It releases cortisol and starts a process like a fight or flight response, which can influence food choices and how much you eat. The most common foods people reach for are calorie-dense foods to give you energy to ward off the stress.
This is a helpful response if you are indeed in a fight or flight situation. But most of the time we aren’t. And if you’re having a chocolate bar to give you’re an energy boost, it’s only temporary. The immediate release of sugar into your blood makes you feel instantly alert, but that quickly fades. Insulin is released to clear the sugar from the blood and often does too good of a job. You may end up with lower blood sugar than before and feel even more tired.
Why people tend to think sweet and salty foods to improve mood is called the Unhealthy- Tasty Intuition. This is the belief healthy foods don’t taste as good and are therefore, less satisfying. But the research doesn’t support this. When 38 people recorded what they ate for a week and how they felt, fruits and vegetables scored just as high as sweets did in terms of providing immediate happiness.
Your Mental Health and Food
While sugar is the main fuel source for the brain it doesn’t mean drinking a pop is the way to better brain health. And like the effects sugary and processed foods has on physical health, a diet high in these foods can also be bad for your mental health.
People with anxiety are more likely to have diets high in sugars and saturated fats. Similarly, there’s a link between diet and depression. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, low-fat dairy and low intake of meat was associated with less chances of getting depression than those with a diet of processed foods and refined sugars. But these studies only indicate a link between diet with anxiety and depression. It’s possible people who are anxious or depressed reach for high-calorie foods, as opposed to these foods causing anxiety and depression.
Whether diet can improve mental well-being has been tested with randomized trials. Patients with depression who received 12 weeks nutrition counselling had fewer depressive symptoms compared to those who didn’t. And a review of 15 other studies confirmed this finding. But not all studies agree. Group nutritional therapy for one-year was not sufficient to prevent major depression compared to those not receiving it. However, this study did not measure if people’s diet actually changed as a result of the counselling, only if they attended the counselling sessions.
Foods Affecting Brain Function and Dementia
Dementia is a leading cause of death worldwide. It occurs when a person’s brain function rapidly deteriorates (cognitive decline). Diets high in carbohydrate have been associated with cognitive decline and greater chances for dementia. People who eat a high-carbohydrate diet tend to eat more sugary and highly processed foods. And higher sugar intake is related to cognitive decline. Indeed, people with high blood sugar levels and diabetes have a higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
Conversely, the Mediterranean diet, which has been linked to protecting against heart disease, may be good for your mind too. People who followed the Mediterranean diet reported improved cognition (the ability to process and understand) and had reduced chances of getting dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
More recently, the MIND diet has been developed to prevent dementia. The MIND diet focuses on foods which may help brain health. These include green leafy vegetables and berries. Elderly adults who followed a MIND diet, or similar form of diet, cut their chances of dementia by half. And if you find you’re eating a lot of sugary and processed foods, don’t fret. Early research in rats shows that cognitive decline may be reversed by switching to a healthier diet.
But how does it all work?
Despite research showing a link between foods with mood and brain health, it’s still not clear how the two are connected on a biological level. It may be due to chronic inflammation (when your body releases inflammatory products continually and when not needed). Chronic inflammation has been linked to depression and dementia. And diets associated with improved mood and lower chances for dementia tend to have nutrients with anti-inflammatory properties.
Another possibility lies in the brain and gut connection. Within your gut (the collection of organs involved in digestion, such as the mouth, stomach, intestines, etc.) are trillions of bacteria. These bacteria help us stay healthy and are collectively called the microbiome. It’s believed that 90%-95% of the body’s serotonin is found in the gut. This is important as serotonin plays a key role in affecting mood. In addition, there appears to be a link between gut bacteria and rates of depression.
The good news is that foods associated with mental health are also the ones associated with physical health and preventing disease. So whether you’re following a heart healthy or brain healthy or cancer preventing diet, you’re on the right track for overall health too.
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