Of all your organs, your brain uses the most energy. Did you know your brain uses 25% of all of the energy you consume through food and beverages? That is ¼ of our energy use on one organ! Your body requires healthy food with certain nutrients and vitamins to fuel your brain. These nutrients help build brain structure, keep cells working, and help you learn, think, and do tasks. To get all the nutrients that improve mental functioning, I suggest eating meals and snacks that include a variety of foods, instead of eating the same meals each day!
Key nutrients and vitamins that help with brain function include:
- B vitamins: found in salmon, beef, green peas, avocado, spinach, eggs, brown rice
- Vitamin E: found in sunflower seeds, almonds, peanut butter, beet greens, pumpkin
- Omega-3 fatty acids: found in flaxseeds, chia seeds, salmon, walnuts, oysters
- Antioxidants: found in cinnamon, plums, berries, artichokes, walnuts, beans, chocolate, coffee, green tea
- Choline: found in chicken, beef, fish, red potatoes, milk, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, peanuts
It is important to mention that no single food or nutrient is the key to a better brain! Our bodies, especially brains, need a variety of nutrients to function properly. When we focus on a well-balanced, whole food eating style, we are able to obtain nutrients from a variety of foods such as carbohydrates, protein, and fats. Some eating patterns and styles of eating that can help improve your brain function include:
- Mediterranean diet
- DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension)
- MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay)
- Low alcohol
- Low sugar
- Low processed foods
The MIND diet has been around for a couple of years, and studies are already showing this diet can slow brain aging by 7.5 years. There are only a handful of epidemiological studies examining the MIND diet’s effect on brain health and cognitive function currently. So far, the results have shown the MIND diet to be associated with slowing cognitive decline and a reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease. The other diets mentioned above also contribute to brain function as they help lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart disease. Your heart pumps blood through vessels to every part of your body, including your brain. Damage to blood vessels can lead to serious health conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and dementia. Keeping your blood vessels healthy can help you have a strong heart and brain!
A lot of the processed foods we eat are highly addictive and stimulate the dopamine centers in our brain, which are associated with pleasure and reward. In order to stop craving unhealthy foods, you’ve got to stop eating those foods. You will actually start to change the physiology in the brain when you pull added sugars and refined carbohydrates from your diet. Talk about food as medicine!
If we look closely at the Mediterranean, DASH, and MIND diets, you would see they are similar because of certain foods they include. If you want to start eating less processed foods, try to incorporate one or more of the following foods/groups into your diet:
These foods are full of antioxidants, omega 3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and more and contain no added sugars, high sodium levels, or additives.
Nutrition and Mental Health
A mental illness is a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling, behavior, or mood. These conditions deeply impact day-to-day living and may also affect the ability to relate to others. If you have — or think you might have — a mental illness, the first thing you must know is that you are not alone. Mental health conditions are far more common than you think, mainly because people don’t like to, or are scared to, talk about them. However:
- 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness each year
- 1 in 20 U.S. adults experience serious mental illness each year
- 1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year
- 50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24
A mental health condition isn’t the result of one event; research suggests multiple, linking causes. Genetics, environment, and lifestyle influence whether someone develops a mental health condition. A stressful job or home life makes some people more susceptible, as do traumatic life events. Biochemical processes and circuits and basic brain structure may play a role, too. While there is a need for further research, observational studies suggest, overall, that there is a link between what people eat and their mental health. Various studies have been conducted to study the effects of nutrition on mental health conditions such as ADHD, autism, anxiety, depression, and eating disorders.
Some scientists believe that the inflammatory effects of certain dietary patterns might help explain the relationship between diet and mental health. Several mental health conditions appear to have links with increased levels of inflammation. Prolonged exposure to stress often leads to the exacerbation of inflammatory processes, increased risk of age-related brain disorders, and cognitive deficits. Diets associated with benefits for mental health tend to be high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthful fats — all of which are foods rich in anti-inflammatory compounds. Still, the exact relationship between diet, inflammation, and alterations in mental health is not well-understood.
Another possible explanation is that diet may affect the bacteria in the gut, which people often refer to as the gut microbiome. Ongoing research has found a strong link between gut health and brain function. For example, healthy bacteria in the gut produce approximately 90% of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which affects mood.
Finally, there is the possibility that diet plays a more indirect role in mental health. It may be that individuals with healthful diets are more likely to engage in behaviors that are also linked with a reduced risk of mental health conditions, such as engaging in regular physical activity, practicing good sleep habits, and refraining from smoking.
There are various compounds that are anti-inflammatory and protect that brain. Some of these, along with their food sources, include:
- Glutathione: found naturally in many foods such as asparagus, avocados, okra, and spinach
- EGCG (epigallocatechin-3-gallate) in green tea increases glutathione while reducing symptoms of depression
- Flavonoids in fruits and vegetables
- N-3 PUFAS (omega 3 fatty acids) from seafood
- Curcumin in turmeric
- Sulforaphane in cruciferous vegetables
To summarize, the results of several studies support the concept of “brain food” and the notion that diet has an important effect on aspects of brain function, but conclusive evidence is still lacking in many cases. It is clear that people with suboptimal diets can still function normally, even when their brain is required to work at a high level. And when I use the term suboptimal diet, I am describing a diet that contains mostly processed foods and additives. These two groups of foods have been linked to poorer mental health in children and adolescents.
There are many suggestions on how diet and nutrition status specifically interact with mental health, cognitive development, and decline. Several case studies have reported that individuals who may be genetically predisposed to nutrient deficiencies can benefit from dietary changes to help address mental disorders. From this perspective, the concept of personalized nutrition may be useful for identifying people who may benefit from foods that support brain function and overall improved nutrient status. If such methods can help detect, in the initial stages, people who are at risk for development of, for example, dementia spectrum diseases, there will be a very strong case for greater emphasis on diet and dietary support to prevent cognitive decline due to age.
What About Supplements?
In addition to dietary patterns, scientists are interested in the potential effects that individual nutrients in the form of dietary supplements might have on mental health. Scientists have found links between low levels of certain nutrients — such as folate, magnesium, iron, zinc, and vitamins B6, B12, and D — and worsening mood, feelings of anxiety, and risk of depression. However, there is inconclusive evidence on whether consuming extra amounts of these nutrients in supplement form offers further benefits for mental health. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that play a key role in brain development and cell signaling. Research has shown how they reduce levels of inflammation. Due to their anti-inflammatory effects and importance in brain health, scientists have investigated omega-3s for their potential effects on mental health.
While more research is still needed, in 2018 and 2019, reviews of randomized controlled trials found omega-3 supplements to be effective in the treatment of anxiety and depression in adults. It remains unclear whether omega-3 supplementation can help improve mood in most individuals or whether it is primarily effective in those with the lowest intake of omega-3s. Overall, when it comes to taking supplements for mental health, there is still a lot we do not know, including what the optimal doses are for various populations and the long-term safety and effectiveness.
From the Dietitian
Dietary changes and nutritional supplementation may be beneficial in improving treatment response and quality of life among people with depression and anxiety. A scoping study has shown that decreased anxiety levels were related to healthy nutrition practices. The least severe anxiety states reported dietary patterns characterized by caloric restriction, breakfast consumption, a wide range of micronutrients–macronutrients supplementation (such as minerals, trace elements, vitamins, essential fatty acids), use of probiotics, and intake of a range of fruits and vegetables. On the other extreme, the most anxiety was experienced by people with a high fat/high sugar/high cholesterol/high trans-fat diet, unbalanced tryptophan and protein, and a high intake of carbohydrates. This study concluded that the elimination of inflammatory foods, nutritional supplements, and increases in the intakes of fruits and vegetables could contribute to better therapy responses, but ONLY in combination with exercise and the other psychiatric and psychological interventions.
It may take days or weeks before you start to feel the mood-boosting effects of a better diet, depending on how many changes you implement. Over time, healthy eating, along with regular exercise and medication, has helped many people overcome depression, myself included. As I repeatedly made healthier food choices, I noted my body responding more favorably and that gave me the inspiration to keep making well-balanced meals that were nourishing to my body and brain!
To use nutrition as a way to enhance your mental health, add these items to your refrigerator or pantry:
- Something sweet: Banana ‘nice-cream,’ an apple with natural almond butter or a piece of extra dark chocolate
- Something salty: Oven-baked kale chips made with avocado oil, salt, and pepper
- Something crunchy: 1/4 cup almonds, walnuts, or pumpkin seeds
- Something quick: Homemade blend of walnuts, seeds, and dark chocolate chips
Incorporating more plants into your diet can start with simply tacking on two to three sides of vegetables to every meal, like broccoli, cauliflower, or spinach. These can be either fresh or frozen, as long as there’s no added sauce, syrup, or sodium in the frozen veggies. Or, start by adding chopped greens to other meals, such as omelets or casseroles.
Check out some of my favorite recipes to boost brain health below:
- Sweet Potato and Black Bean Chili
- Tuna Pasta with Olives and Artichokes
- Pan-Seared Salmon with Pear and Walnut Spinach Salad
- Egg Bake Casserole
- Curried Roasted Cauliflower
- Lemony Cabbage Avocado Coleslaw
Ready for more nutrition tips and lifestyle recommendations? The YMCA Nutrition Counseling Program helps adults find a healthier way of eating that’s right for them with the help of our Registered Dietitian. Learn more »
Sources: Granero, Roser. Role of Nutrition and Diet on Healthy Mental State. MDPI. 2022. National Institute on Aging: “What Do We Know About Diet and Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease Oxford Academic: Brain Foods – the role of diet in brain performance and health
—Mattie Lefever, RDN, LDN