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Nutrition and Mental Health

How diet can affect mental wellness

by Richard Lally

Everyone knows the effects of our diet on our physical health.  We see nutrition facts touting fat content and calories.  We all know the traditional “2000 calorie a day diet” is recommended for most individuals.  We hear statistics about numerous statistics about obesity rates across the country.  While physical health is certainly affected by what we eat, many people don’t realize how much their mental health can be affected as well.

A field has emerged called nutritional psychology.  This science studies how nutrients affect mood and behavior.  Nutrition has been shown to affect numerous aspects of our mental health; sleep, mood, depression, stress tolerance, are just a few of these.  While there are certain conditions that require medication, it is worthwhile to examine the effects that diet could have on these issues as well. 

Dopamine and serotonin are two of the major brain chemicals that can be affected by diet.  Dopamine is responsible for transmitting signals to the brain from neurons.  Dopamine contributes to feelings of pleasure or satisfaction.  Low energy, low mood, fatigue, and mood swings have all been related to decreased dopamine levels.  Serotonin is also closely related to feelings of wellbeing and happiness.  It is surprisingly found not only in the brain but also in the gastrointestinal tract. Low levels of serotonin can also contribute to depression, irritability, and negative thoughts. 

We all know that a diet low in sugar, fats, and processed foods is best for our bodies.  But what specific foods can contribute to our brain health?  Certain fish, such as salmon and tuna are beneficial due to the amounts of omega-3 that are present.  Omega-3 increases blood flow to the brain and has also been shown to improve cognition.  Nuts, such as almonds and hazelnuts also contain omega-3s, as well as vitamin E, which can also protect brain cells from damage.  

Many types of berries contain antioxidants which can help reduce inflammation.  Inflammation in the brain has been linked to memory loss, decreased concentration, and altered behavior.  Dark chocolate, in moderation, also can reduce inflammation due to antioxidant properties. Inflammation can also cause many other issues throughout the body.

Increasing our intake of green, leafy vegetables is another step we can take to help our brain function. Brocolli, kale, collards, and spinach have been shown to protect the brain from free radicals and cognitive decline.  The B vitamins in these foods can also help regulate mood and reduce symptoms of depression.

Foods with high levels of tryptophan can help increase the levels of serotonin in the brain, which was discussed earlier.  These foods include salmon, eggs, nuts, and spinach, which all have other brain strengthening nutrients as well.  Protein-rich foods such as turkey, beef, soy, legumes, and eggs can also help increase dopamine levels.

As you can see, the brain can benefit in many ways from a well-balanced diet.  This means fewer processed foods, less alcohol, and less fatty foods.  The benefit our bodies will receive from this improved diet will also give our brains a boost and help combat some common issues such as depression and low mood.  Some conditions do require medical treatment, but why would we not give ourselves every chance of success at a happier, healthier life by improving our diet as well?!


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