They say “you are what you eat” but have you ever thought that this also applies to your brain function?
Poor mental clarity can take over your life, but there is increasing evidence that you can take your health back into your own hands by making certain dietary choices. There are many foods that seem to either exacerbate mental health issues, or improve and protect your cognition. This all indicates a strong correlation between your gut and your brain, and to be able to regain your fullest potential we must begin to learn about these connections.
Have you ever thought about how the food you are eating can directly affect your mental health and clarity?
Overall health is multifaceted, with physical health being only one piece of the puzzle. Mental health often has physical effects and diet and nutrition play a huge role in both physical and mental health of an individual.
There is no silver bullet or single superfood that will magically fix every ailment, however, there are promising outcomes around dietary choices and mental health and clarity.
Mental Health: Anxiety and Stress
Anxiety, stress, depression, eating disorders, and mental illness have all increased over the past few years.
According to the National Institute of Health:
- 19.1% of U.S. adults had an anxiety disorder in the past year.
- Among adults with any anxiety disorder, an estimated 22.8% had serious impairment, and 33.7% had moderate impairment.
- A majority of people with any anxiety disorder suffered mild impairment (43.5%). (1)
There have been many studies researching the link between poor nutrition, gut health and mental health. These studies have been adding to the expanding research showing the link between gut microbiome and mental health disorders.
Fortunately, we have a powerful tool available for modulating inflammation, gut health, and mental health: nutrition! While the relationship between food and mental health begins very early in life, it is never too late to improve your diet and your mental well-being. (1)
The Gut-Brain Connection
Before we dive into foods that can help mental health, we must start with the gut-brain connection. One of the least discussed, and often completely ignored, factors in health is the gut-brain axis.
Did you know that your gut bacteria can influence your mood?
“The brain and the gut communicate via a gut–microbiome–brain axis, and a growing body of literature indicates that a disrupted gut microbiome may contribute to a variety of cognitive and mood disorders, including:
- Parkinson’s disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Sensory processing disorder
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
The bacteria in your gut hold immense power over you—they can even influence how you respond to stress.” (2)
The gut microbiome refers to the microorganisms, or bacteria, that live within your gut. Large numbers of these microorganisms are essential for maintaining overall health. When the microbiome is thrown out of balance, severe disease and sickness can occur.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS):
IBS is an intestinal illness that consists of several very painful symptoms and while it is not life threatening, it can seriously affect everyday life.
In cases of individuals diagnosed with IBS, there is a new understanding that a dysfunctional gut-brain-microbiome axis is responsible for the development and progression of this disorder. (2)
“IBS sufferers have long understood the connection between their gut symptoms and mental health. Indeed, mental health issues such as anxiety and depression are a common comorbidity of IBS.” (2)
Bringing awareness to the gut-brain connection is an important factor that should be highlighted while assessing your overall health and wellness.
Diet, Nutrients, and Mood
Poor nutrition and mood altering diseases seem to have a link. Our ability to learn and concentrate appears to be impacted by poor nutrition. Research shows a connection between reduced mental health in children and adolescence linked to poor diet. (3)
A diet consisting of processed foods and refined flour can induce a feeling of brain fog, difficulty in learning and memory as well as depressive symptoms. You may not even recognize the feeling of brain fog until you stop eating refined and processed “foods.” After reducing consumption of these it can feel like a cloud has lifted as you regain that clairity, focus, and mental engagement.
Diets consisting of protein, healthy saturated fats, berries, some veggies, nuts, and dairy help to protect from mental and physical diseases. Especially when they are used to replace a diet filled with processed foods and refined flours. For example, cooking with butter or avocado oil instead of canola oil and replacing your snack of cheese and crackers with nuts and cheese are small steps you can take.
Micronutrient and vitamin deficiencies in your body can also have a direct relationship with the brain. Some of the most common deficiencies found in those struggling with their mental health are vitamin B-12, vitamin D, omega fatty acids, folate, iron, zinc, and selenium. Supplementation as simple as eating two brazil nuts a day for selenium can easily bring up these deficient levels.
Foods related to Cognitive Impairment
Certain foods stand out for their ability to exacerbate signs and symptoms of mental and physical diseases.
“It is increasingly clear from research that insulin resistance and chronic elevated blood sugar are major risk factors for cognitive impairment, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease. Insulin resistance promotes brain dysfunction by impairing glucose transport to the brain, inducing neuroinflammation, altering synaptic plasticity (which harms the brain’s ability to learn and memorize), and stimulating the production of harmful compounds called advanced-glycation end products in the brain. A diet high in refined carbohydrates is associated with an increased concentration of beta-amyloid protein in the brain, a characteristic feature of Alzheimer’s disease, while also raising the risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia. (4)
Eating inflammatory foods such as industrial seed oils, processed sugars, and refined carbohydrates have negative effects on physical and mental health.
“Chronic consumption of these foods can negatively impact cognitive function, learning, and memory. Focus on nutrient-dense, whole foods to support brain health. Because the brain is extra susceptible to oxidative damage, foods with high levels of antioxidants, like colorful vegetables and berries, will help prevent ROS [reactive oxygen species] from overwhelming neuronal cells. For extra support, consider including some nootropics in your diet.” (8)
11 Nutritional Factors That Influence Mental Health
Throughout a person’s lifespan, dietary choices impact physical, and mental health. These include:
– The Standard American diet
-An Ancestral Diet
-Blood Sugar Control
-Probiotics, and Prebiotics
-Essential fatty acids
-Coffee, tea, caffeine (5)
Diet and lifestyle are main components of the overall picture of health and wellness. Taking inventory of your diet and lifestyle decisions can greatly impact your quality of life.
Almost every year there seems to be a new “fad diet” that makes its debut. It can easily be overwhelming deciding what eating habits are best for you.
Mediteranian, Paleo, Primal, GAPS, FODMAP, Keto and other diets like these have all major benefits when it comes to supporting mental clarity and overall health. However, it can feel like a huge commitment, so even small steps like cutting out all processed sugars can make a difference.
The ketogenic or keto diet is a high fat, low carb food plan. Most people that follow a keto diet also have moderate protein intake. “The typical macronutrient ratios are 60 to 75 percent of calories from fat, 15 to 30 percent of calories from protein, and 5 to 10 percent of calories from carbohydrates.” (6)
For the liver to produce ketones (a source of energy that most of the body uses for fuel, including the brain), a key component is to get a low enough carb intake.
“Most of the time, particularly with the Standard American Diet, we’re running our bodies on glucose from the carb sources we regularly eat throughout the day. When carb intake is restricted enough, the body needs to tap other energy sources. That can include fat and ketones. While much of the body can use fat efficiently, the brain does not—hence the need for ketone production under a very low carb scenario.” (7)
The keto diet can certainly have positive effects on cognitive health.
“A ketogenic diet also appears to improve memory and cognition in those with minor declines in these areas.
Since ketosis can help with major brain disorders [such as epilepsy], many have wondered whether it can improve cognitive function in otherwise healthy people. Although research is still scant in that area, many people report a profound sense of mental clarity once they’ve successfully transitioned to a keto diet. Unfortunately, researchers haven’t studied the nootropic effects of ketogenic diets in healthy people—yet. They have looked at people with milder cognitive deficits, though, finding some promising effects.” (7)
The Nutrivore Diet
The Nutrivore diet focuses on whole foods that are packed full of nutrients, while avoiding the foods that drive chronic disease. Foods that are refined, processed and have high inflammatory markers should be avoided.
The nutrivore diet is made up of nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory whole foods like:
- Organ meat
- Shellfish and fish
- Bone broth
- A variety of fresh fruits and vegetables (including sea vegetables)
- Starchy plants
“Nutrivores avoid inflammatory foods like industrial seed oils and refined flour, and avoid things like processed foods and excess sugars.” (9)
Nutrient Dense Diets
Nutrient dense diets have been a helpful road for individuals to take when desiring a healthier life. What we eat affects our brain health and about 20% of the body’s energy sources go directly to our brain.
“High-quality diets prioritize nutrient-dense foods over their processed, nutrient-poor contemporaries. Nutrient-dense foods include a high concentration of micronutrients and amino acids that our bodies need to thrive. Our bodies need roughly 40 different micronutrients to function normally, and the only way we can get them is through our food. Eating foods that are high in nutrient density can protect against deficiencies and related health problems.” (9)
Some foods with the highest nutrient density include:
- Organ meats
- Herbs and spices
- Nuts and seeds
- Fish and seafood
- Lamb, veal, and wild game
- Eggs and dairy
Each diet has its own benefits, and when assessing which diet is right for you, it may result in a combination of all of them.
There is a lot of variation when it comes to defining a healthy diet and lifestyle. Instead of focusing on each macronutrient or one specific food, it makes more sense to look at the overall quality of your diet to determine what is benefiting cognitive health and what is not.
A good place to begin is by assessing how various foods make you feel-not just in the moment, but even into the next day. Introduce or eliminate certain foods for two to three weeks and then take inventory of how you feel mentally, physically and emotionally.
Overtime you can begin to create an arsenal of foods that energize and uplift you rather than result in brain fog, fatigue and sluggishness.
The lifestyle choices we make every day will determine our quality of life. We all desire to function in our everyday lives at the most optimal level we can. Eating a nutritious diet can help keep the body healthy physically, mentally and emotionally. Our dietary choices can seriously support or decrease our quality of life.
The saying holds true, “You are what you eat.”