By Doug Cook, RD
We sometimes forget that the brain needs nutritional TLC like any other organ. We’re more familiar with the role that nutrition has on heart health or bone health, for example. But make no mistake, nutrition plays a crucial role in supporting your brain, mental health, and well-being. The foods we eat have a direct impact on brain structure and function, neurotransmitter production, and inflammation all of which can impact mood, emotional well-being, and long-term cognitive health.
Given that more and more of our food energy is coming from ultra-processed foods, focusing on minimally-processed, nutrient-dense food is more important now than ever before. Luckily, nourishing your brain and mind is as close as the nearest supermarket.
Here’s how nutrition supports your brain and mental health
Energy: the brain requires a lot of energy to function. Brain function accounts for about 20% of the total amount of energy your body uses every day. Its preferred fuel source is glucose, which we get from foods that contain carbohydrates (mostly from grain and grain products, fruits, vegetables, milk, yogurt, and legumes).
To ensure you have a steady supply of glucose to fuel your brain, helping to maintain blood sugar balance is key. Balanced meals with a combination of complex carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats help regulate blood sugar levels, a combination that automatically occurs when we eat a variety of foods at mealtime. Stable blood sugar levels are important for maintaining consistent energy levels, reducing mood swings, and preventing feelings of irritability and anxiety.
Neurotransmitter production: nutrients such as amino acids (from the digestion of protein), vitamins, and minerals are essential for the synthesis of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These chemicals regulate mood, emotions, and cognitive processes. Getting nutrient-dense, protein-rich foods at each meal will provide the building blocks for neurotransmitters.
Omega-3 fatty acids: omega-3 fatty acids, especially EPA, DPA & DHA found in fatty fish and seafood, eggs and omega-3 enriched eggs are essential for brain health. DHA is the most abundant omega-3 in the brain and DHA is considered the structural fat of your brain cells (neurons). Unfortunately, 90% of Canadians are not getting the recommended minimum intake of omega-3s on a daily basis so including foods source of these essential fats is important for brain and mental health. Omega-3 fats have anti-inflammatory properties as well, and play a role in neurotransmitter function, potentially improving mood and reducing the risk of depression.
Micronutrients: certain vitamins and minerals, such as B-vitamins, vitamin C and D, iron, magnesium, and zinc, are important for nervous system function and play a role in managing stress and anxiety. Deficiencies or a chronic low intake of these nutrients can contribute to mood disturbances too. Getting more of these nutrients just takes a little planning when it comes to healthy eating:
- B-vitamins, including B6, B12 and folate, play a central role in neurotransmitter synthesis, and energy production. They are essential for mood regulation and cognitive function. Sources include whole grains, lean meats, legumes, and leafy greens.
- Magnesium is important for nerve function and relaxation. It can help reduce stress, anxiety, and support overall mood. Good sources include nuts, seeds, whole grains, and dark leafy greens.
- Zinc participates in neurotransmitter function and helps regulate mood and behaviour. Zinc is found in foods like lean meats such as beef, veal and pork, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
- Iron is essential for transporting oxygen in the blood and maintaining proper brain function. Iron deficiency can lead to fatigue, depression, low mood, and cognitive impairment. Sources of iron include lean meats such as beef, veal and pork, poultry, fish, beans, lentils, and leafy greens.
- Vitamin D is important for brain health and mood regulation. It may play a role in reducing the risk of depression. Fatty fish, fortified dairy products, and supplements are the main sources of vitamin D.
- Vitamin C is an antioxidant that helps protect brain cells from oxidative stress and supports the production of neurotransmitters. Vitamin C helps to increase the absorption of iron from foods when vitamin C and iron-rich foods are eaten together. Vitamin C is abundant in fruits and vegetables, especially citrus fruits, kiwi, tomatoes, white potatoes, berries, and bell peppers.
Gut-brain connection: the gut and brain are connected through the gut-brain axis; a connection between the gut and brain via the central nervous system, as well as neurotransmitters that each use to talk to each other. A healthy gut microbiota (the bacteria that naturally reside in your digestive tract) is influenced by diet, specifically fibre and a group of plant compounds called polyphenols. Both fibre and polyphenols serve as a food source for your microbiota which promotes a diverse and robust gut bacteria population. The gut and microbiota influences mood and behaviour through the production of neurotransmitters and other signalling molecules.
A diet rich in dietary fibre from whole grains, fruits, and vegetables supports a healthy gut microbiome, which has been linked to improved mood and mental well-being through the gut-brain connection.
Hydration: dehydration can affect cognitive function, mood, and concentration. Drinking enough water is essential for optimal brain function and mental well-being. Aim to get the equivalent of about 2 litres (8 cups) of added fluids per day.
Mindful eating and stress reduction: practicing mindful eating, which involves paying full attention to the eating experience, can reduce stress and promote a positive relationship with food. Try to be present when eating, remove distractions and take the time to enjoy the food you’re eating.
Nutrition plays a crucial role in supporting mental health and well-being. The foods we eat can have a direct impact on brain structure, function and overall emotional well-being. Mental health is multifactorial but food and nutrition is no less important when you consider that food provides the essential nutrients that your brain needs. It’s simply harder to feel and be your best when your brain isn’t getting the nutrition it needs. The best way to ensure you’re feeding your brain and nourishing your mind is to focus on minimally processed, nutrient-dense foods that include both plant and animal foods, which will allow the brain and its intricate network of neurons to do just that.
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