As part of Mental Health Week I am writing about food and it’s effect on mind and mood. I give a little information about how the brain works and then I look at what foods can be helpful and unhelpful for mind, mood and memory.
Chemicals in the brain
Neurotransmitters are the chemicals in the brain that determine your mood, appetite, memory, feeling of wellbeing, drive, sleep, motivation and movement.
Neurotransmitters and their function
- Serotonin – mood, appetite, gut function and sleep
- Dopamine, adrenaline and noradrenaline – drive, energy, focus. Dopamine gives us feelings of reward and when out of kilter can be stimulated by addictive behaviours and substances
- Glutamate – excitatory
- Gama-aminobutyric acid – calming
- Acetylcholine – memory, mental alertness and movement
- Endorphins – relieve pain and promote a feeling of well being often released when exercising
Symptoms of Mood/Neurotransmitter Imbalances
- Poor sleep
- Poor concentration
- Low mood
- Poor memory
- Lack of motivation
What can help?
Supporting blood sugar
Eat a diet rich in complex carbohydrates, protein and avoid sugar. Supporting blood sugar levels helps with energy levels, concentration and mood.
Eat a good breakfast
Eat protein at each meal
Avoid refined carbohydrates such as sugar, cereals and white bread and replace with complex carbs – brown rice, wholegrain or rye bread, quinoa, vegetables such as sweet potato and beetroot
Have 3 meals a day and 2 snacks
Protein power and Amazing Amino Acids
Good protein sources are chicken, fish, beans, pluses, peas, avocadoes, nuts and seeds, red meat, game meat and eggs.
Protein is very important as it is made up of amino acids – the building blocks for making the neurotransmitters in your brain.
Serotonin is made from tryptophan – turkey is rich in tryptophan hence the sleepy feeling you get after eating Christmas lunch, serotonin is converted to melatonin needed for sleep, other good sources of tryptophan are fish, spirulina, sesame seeds, beans and red meat.
Choline is needed for the formation of acetylcholine, needed for memory and movement and this is found in egg yolk and lecithin granules – these are usually found in your local health food store and can be added to smoothies, soups and salad dressings.
Tyrosine is found in eggs, soy, fish, dairy and poultry and is needed for ‘get up and go’.
Other amino acids found in protein are needed for brain health so eating whole complete proteins are essential to the everyday diet.
Minerals for mood
Zinc is needed to make serotonin – good sources of zinc are meat, game meat, fish, seafood, seaweed and nuts and seeds. Mara seaweed is good for seasoning your foods see http://maraseaweed.com on where to buy.
Another important mineral needed for the nervous system is iron. People that are low in iron may experience foggy thinking and low mood. The best source is in lean red meat, poultry, fish and eggs. Vegetarian sources are found in beans, pulses, dark green leafy vegetables and dried apricots. Eat these foods with foods rich in vitamin c, salads, parsley, and fruit – to increase the absorption of iron.
The magnificent, calming mineral magnesium comes into play: eat Swiss chard, spinach, pumpkin seeds, butternut squash and steamed broccoli or have Epsom Salt baths 2-3 times a week to increase magnesium levels.
Calcium is also needed for brain function. Include dairy, almonds, flaxseeds and sesame seeds in your diet. Snack on humus as it contains sesame seeds. Bone broths are another good calcium source, boiling bones in water and veg make a good basis for a stock and can be used in soups and sauces and also a good source of protein.
B’s for Brain
B vitamins are also needed for neurotransmitters function and communication. B12 and folate essential for many body processes including the development of neurotransmitters and they are also needed for the protective lining of the nerve cells called the myelin sheath. Animal protein is the best source of B12 and green leafy vegetables are a good source of folate. Other good sources of B vitamins are whole grains, nuts and seeds.
Fat for Function
Eat oily fish 2-3 times a week this includes salmon, mackerel, trout, sardines and herring for good brain health. Flaxseeds, walnuts and pumpkin seeds also are a good source of omega 3. DHA in omega 3 is needed for the health of brain cell membranes, ensuring the vital nutrients and chemicals can cross in and out of the cell to assist brain function. DHA also helps boosts serotonin and acetylcholine levels improving mood and memory.
Antioxidants for protection
Rainbow coloured fruit and vegetables for protection of brain cells. Eat carrots, beetroot, green leafy vegetables, pea, courgettes, peppers, apples, plum, asparagus and berries.
What to avoid
Foods that cause oxidation and inflammation in the body
Burnt meat and fish
Trans or hydrogenated fats
High consumption of dairy and or meat that has been farmed intensively
Refined white foods – sugar, rice, bread, cakes and pastries.
Foods that can be highly addictive can also impact on brain chemistry and assessing your consumption is worth considering. Sometimes we think we need a glass of wine and actually it may be that we are actually hungry and have not supported blood sugar levels throughout the day or we are seeking a reward. Monitor this and make adjustments. Improving your diet by increasing protein, reducing sugar intake and increasing nutrients like omega 3, amino acids, vitamins and minerals can all help towards stopping unhelpful lifestyle habits.
Improve your gut health – 90% of serotonin is found in the gut and it has a role to play in digestion as well as mood. The gut it is often described as a second brain. Assess any foods that you may thing cause you digestive problems and avoid, monitoring how you feel, do you have less bloating, wind if you avoid bread? One of the main triggers in IBS can be stress and anxiety so the link between gut and brain is an important one. Interestingly it is also National Celiac week as well this week, think about how you feel and if there are any foods that trigger symptoms, even mood symptoms.
Good Brain Food Meals
Oven baked salmon with asparagus and new potatoes
2 poached eggs on rye toast and sautéed mushrooms and spinach
Almond milk smoothie with avocado, banana and berries and protein powder
Smoked salmon on a slice of rye or wholemeal bread with avocado and tomato
Venison stew with celeriac mash
Cottage pie with sweet potato mash
Porridge with berries and ground mixed seeds, including flaxseeds
For more information and recipes please contact me.