Mental health is not an uncommon problem amongst Canadians, with an estimated 1 in 5 people experiencing them each year. It has been thought for a long time that there is a clear link between what we eat and how we feel. Although a change in diet is often suggested as a side-measure when dealing with mental health, new evidence seems to suggest it may actually an important first step when dealing with conditions such as depression, anxiety and other mood disorders. So how does does food affect your brain and can it trigger anxiety?
There are several nutrients found in common foods that affect how your brain works.
B vitamins are found in a wide range of foods, but most commonly, wholegrains, red meat, poultry, eggs, legumes, and leafy vegetables such as spinach. Of course, you’d have to eat a whole lot of spinach to match the amount of B-vitamins found in meat, so those who stick to a vegan and vegetarian diet should consider taking a daily B12 supplement.
Put simply, the B-vitamins are like building blocks for your body. They have a direct impact on your energy levels, brain function, and cell metabolism – all of which can affect your mental health. One way in which they do this is to aid in the production of neurotransmitters, which are essentially chemicals that allow neurons to communicate with each other which in turn affects your mood.
Most people obtain a lot of Vitamin D through sunlight – which means in the depths of a cold Canadian winter, your body may feel short changed! This is why a lot of people tend to feel worse mentally in the winter, a condition more commonly known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD for short. It’s important to keep up your Vitamin D intake all year round, but especially when the days are shorter.
Vitamin D helps produce the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, dopamine. Low amounts of dopamine have been linked to the development of mood disorders. Vitamin D can be found in milk, eggs and fatty fish such as salmon and tuna, however it can still be hard to obtain enough through food alone, so taking a supplement is recommended, at least during the winter months.
Antioxidants are found in fruits and vegetables, so it would make sense that those that follow a healthier diet would have a higher intake. Antioxidants are thought to prevent the oxidative that causes stress. Now, I’m not saying eating an entire bunch of bananas before Thanksgiving dinner at your in-laws will be a fail-safe cure but eating a diet rich with antioxidants can certainly help manage the way your body handles and processes stress. These types of food affect your brain in order to help it manage trauma and stress.
In a study of around 300,000 Canadians, it was found that those who had a greater fruit and vegetable consumption tended to have lower odds of developing depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders.
The conclusion was that the antioxidants in these foods would counteract the effects of oxidative stress which negatively affects mental health. Not a huge fruit and veggies person? Unfortunately, only antioxidants from food sources had a positive link to improving mental health, so a dietary supplement just won’t cut it. This may suggest that the form and delivery of the antioxidants is important in improving mental health.
Omega-3 is often heard about and seen advertised on various grocery store products – but what actually is it? Omega-3 is a fatty acid found in oily fish, chia seeds and flax seeds. It is used to build healthy cell membranes and improve the way neurons communicate with each other in the brain – leading to a sharper mind and overall wellbeing. In this sense, this food will affect your brain by increasing the rate of communication.
Cod liver oil is a popular Omega-3 supplement that is taken daily. Studies showed that taking a regular Omega-3 supplement as an add-on treatment for depression could reduce the symptoms beyond the effect of anti-depressants alone.
Fiber is an incredibly important component of any diet. Some of the best sources of fibre are wholegrain carbohydrates, legumes, fruits, and vegetables. It helps maintain a healthy level of good bacterial within your gut. This may not seem relevant to mental health, but surprisingly, gut health is closely linked. Whilst eating a fibre rich diet takes care of the microbes in your gut, your gut, in turn, sends messages to your brain.
Research has proposed that these messages influence what we choose to eat by manipulating signals in the vagus nerve (the never which connects 100 million nerve cells from the digestive tract to the brain). These signals may change taste receptors, produce toxins to make us feel bad or release hormones which make us feel great, which in turn affects our mental health.