Summer is here, which means that the sun is shining, the weather is warm, and invites are rolling in for barbecues and get-togethers… socially-distanced ones, that is.
It also means that we’re blessed with an abundance of fruit, vegetables, and other great nutrient-rich foods. And if you’ve been struggling with your mental health lately, you might want to take advantage of what nature is serving up this summer.
In recent years, scientists have begun exploring the relationship between nutrition and mental health, and while the science is relatively new, the findings are compelling. As it turns out, what you eat (and don’t eat) can have a serious impact on mental health.
Your brain, the engine and control center of your body
Think about it. Your brain is always working. From powering your thoughts and movements, to controlling your breathing and heartbeat - your brain does it all. Even when you’re dreaming about ziplining through some magical rainforest while running from velociraptors in tutus, your brain is hard at work. (Or is that just me?)
Your brain is the engine and control centre of your body - so feed it well!
It comes as no surprise that the brain demands a constant supply of fuel, and that fuel comes from the food you eat. What’s more, the brain functions very much like an expensive car - it works best when it gets premium fuel. As a result of its high metabolic rate, the brain is reliant on aminoacids, fats, vitamins, and minerals found in whole foods. If your brain only gets “subpar” fuel (such as highly processed foods), you can expect some sluggish performance.
Fueling your brain with the good stuff
The idea that proper nutrition and mental wellness are inherently linked is gaining traction among many researchers. As suggested in a paper published in The Lancet Psychiatry, diet is progressively becoming “as important to psychiatry as it is to cardiology, endocrinology, and gastroenterology.”
Another study from Deakin University found a link between nutrient-dense foods (such as fruit, vegetables, wholegrain cereals, and fish) and better mental health outcomes. While the research continues, the following nutrients have consistently been associated with neurological functions that help people manage mental disorders: antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and B vitamins.
Antioxidants (like vitamins C and E) are thought to nourish the brain and protect it from stress. Similarly, omega-3 fatty acids - commonly found in fish oil - are essential for the integrity of brain cell membranes. They also play a role in the reuptake of important brain chemicals (called neurotransmitters) such as noradrenaline, dopamine and serotonin.
Among the family of B vitamins, folic acid (often referred to as folate) is particularly important when it comes to mental health. It plays a key role in the production of serotonin, the so-called “feel-good chemical” that helps keep our moods balanced.
There’s also increasing evidence that gut health is connected to mental wellbeing, since about 95% of the body’s serotonin is actually produced in the gastrointestinal tract. In other words, the inner workings of the digestive system not only digest food, but also guide emotion. Talk about emotional eating!
Choosing the right foods for you
All this research would suggest that what you consume directly affects the structure and function of your brain. Consequently, opting for a healthy and nutrient-rich diet may help boost your mood and increase your chances of warding off depression and related mental health disorders. I don’t know about you, but… I’m in!
Improving your diet is a life-changing decision that can result in long-term benefits for your brain and overall health. However, it’s important to remember that each one of us has different needs: ultimately, it’s essential to learn more about your own body’s inner workings in order to make educated decisions about your eating habits. Make sure to choose foods that fit your lifestyle and personal preferences, keep it simple, and enjoy the process!
At the end of the day, it’s all about balance and moderation. So take advantage of the great produce available at this time of the year, and fuel your brain with foods that are rich in nutrients. And most importantly, listen to your own body. It always knows best.