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Healthy diet, healthy mind! 5 Foods to Improve Mental Health

Healthy diet, healthy mind! 5 Foods to Improve Mental Health

A healthy diet can improve a lot in your physical health including reducing the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack and certain cancers, but what if we could also eat for our mind? There’s evidence that a few simple dietary changes could boost cognitive function and reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders.

Like your brain, your gut has its own nervous system, which sends information to the brain via the vagus nerve. This helps explain why you might feel sick or nauseous when you’re nervous or stressed. Just as the brain impacts the gut, what we put in our gut can impact the functioning of the brain. Here are five foods that keep the mind working at its best.

1. Fatty Fish
In studies, foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as wild cold water fish (salmon, herring, sardines, and mackerel), seaweed, and chicken fed on flaxseed and walnuts, have been shown to reduce symptoms of depression and other mental disorders. This is likely because of the effect omega-3s have on the production of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals responsible for our moods), including dopamine and serotonin. By supporting the synapses in the brain, omega-3s also boost learning and memory.

2. Whole Grains
The primary source of energy for the brain is glucose, which comes from carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates exacerbate low mood by creating spikes in blood sugar, and have been shown to have effects on the brain similar to drugs of abuse. By contrast, complex carbs release glucose slowly, helping us feel full longer and providing a steady source of fuel for the brain and body. Healthy sources of complex carbohydrates include whole-wheat products, bulgur, oats, wild rice, barley, beans, and soy.

3. Lean Protein
Next to carbohydrates, protein is the most abundant substance in the body. The amino acid tryptophan, a building block of protein, influences mood by producing the neurotransmitter serotonin. Sometimes called nature’s Prozac, serotonin is associated with depression. Lean protein sources, including fish, turkey, chicken, eggs, and beans help keep serotonin levels balanced. 

4. Leafy Greens
Popeye was on to something with the spinach! Leafy greens like spinach, romaine, turnip, mustard greens, and broccoli are high in folic acid, as are beets and lentils. Deficiencies in folate, as well as other B vitamins, have been linked with higher rates of depression, fatigue, and insomnia. Some studies suggest that low levels of selenium, found in vegetables like broccoli, contribute to depression, anxiety, and fatigue. 

5. Yogurt with Active Cultures
Fermented foods, such as yogurt with active cultures, kefir, kimchi, tempeh, and certain pickled vegetables, contain probiotics (healthy bacteria) that have been shown in studies to reduce anxiety and stress hormones. By contrast, eating too many processed foods may compromise the delicate balance of healthy and unhealthy bacteria in the gut.

Modern diets are significantly different from our ancestors’. We can blame busy lifestyles and easy, affordable processed food, but most of us can make changes to counteract these influences. Increasing the intake of fruits and vegetables, limiting processed foods that come from bags and boxes, and cooking meals from scratch is a great start to a healthy tummy and mind.