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The food you eat impacts your mental health: Dr. Nina

The food you eat impacts your mental health: Dr. Nina

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Dr. Nina Radcliff

Dr. Nina Radcliff

More than 16 million U.S. adults reported having a major episode of depression within the last year, according to the National Institutes of Health.

While a number of factors are at play when considering who’s at risk, a new field of study called nutritional psychiatry looks at how diet can impact mental health. An important new collection of evidence clearly demonstrates that, along with physical health, what you eat affects your mental health: your moods, feelings and cognitive function.

It’s important to remember that your brain is a life-sustaining organ that uses a lot of energy, vitamins and nutrients. Always on, it depends on fuel, which means foods that have the nutrients, vitamins and the right sources of protein and fats. These form the building blocks for neurotransmitters as well as cellular structures and enzymes in the brain.

Your brain wants high-quality fuel. And science shows that a diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins can help to improve overall mood and general feelings of happiness. It can also reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

Conversely, a diet characterized by a high consumption of red and/or processed meat, refined grains, sweets, high-fat dairy products, potatoes and gravy, and low intakes of fruits and vegetables is associated with an increased risk of depression and anxiety. There is clear evidence that diet choices affect cognitive function later in life.

Here’s a look at key understandings or dietary patterns of foods vital to support your brain:

Mediterranean Diet: Evidence shows that the Mediterranean diet, which focuses on whole foods, lean proteins, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts/seeds and healthy fats, while cutting out processed foods and sugars, is associated with higher levels of cognitive function. As well, it’s been shown to reduce the risk of depression. In contrast, diets high in sugar and fat lead to cardiometabolic diseases, which have negative effects on cognition or thinking.

Probiotics: Gut bacteria also plays a role in your mental health. Approximately 95% of your body’s serotonin levels are produced in the gastrointestinal tract. Serotonin is a hormone that plays a role in mood, feelings of well-being and happiness. It’s no surprise that the most widely prescribed anti-depressant medications work to elevate serotonin levels in the body.

Known as “good” bacteria, probiotics help maintain gut health by boosting your body’s own natural bacteria, thereby offsetting or keeping “bad” bacteria at bay, that would otherwise interfere with serotonin levels. Foods that are rich in probiotics include: yogurt, sauerkraut, pickles/pickled foods, miso, tempeh, Gouda, Gruyere and traditional cheddars, leeks, asparagus, onions and garlic.

Selenium: This mineral is key to one of your body’s master antioxidants, glutathione peroxidase. When low, it leaves you vulnerable to a lot of toxic gunk building up in your system with long-term effects. Research confirms that low levels of selenium in the diet are associated with anxiety, depression and tiredness. Foods rich in selenium include: whole grains, Brazil nuts, sardines, oysters, clams, halibut, shrimp, salmon and ham, beef, turkey, chicken and pork.

Vitamin B12 and D: Not getting enough Vitamin B12 leads to fatigue, lethargy, depression, poor memory and is associated with mania and psychosis. Sources include dairy products, eggs, fish, meat and poultry.

Deficiency in Vitamin D is associated with depression. Most Vitamin D comes from sun exposure, not food! However, food sources with notable amounts of Vitamin D include: fatty fish (e.g, salmon, mackerel, sardines); eggs; and fortified foods (e.g., milk, cereal, orange juice, yogurt).

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Consuming a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids may reduce the risk of mood disorders and brain diseases by enhancing brain function and preserving the myelin sheath that protects nerve cells. Good sources include: salmon, sardines, tuna, mackerel; flaxseed/flaxseed oil; chia seeds; and walnuts.

Protein: It plays an important part of your cell structure, function, and regulation as well as fuel. The body uses a protein called tryptophan to manufacture serotonin, “the feel good hormone.” Protein-rich foods include beef, poultry, fish, pork and meats, as well as plant-based foods such as tofu, tempeh, quinoa, nutritional yeast, beans and lentils.

Zinc: This mineral is essential for brain function and cellular processes, including thinking and feeling. While our understanding is continually being clarified, an inverse relationship between zinc levels and depressive symptoms exists. For those being treated for depression with antidepressants, zinc supplementation was found to be more effective than prescribed medications alone. Zinc is present in: whole grains, oysters, beef, chicken, beans, pork and pumpkin seeds.

Dietary changes cannot cure or completely prevent depression. However, healthy food choices can help keep you in optimum physical and mental health. Food is fuel. Make informed choices to nourish your body and mind (moods, feelings and cognitive function).

Dr. Nina Radcliff, of Galloway Township, is a physician anesthesiologist, television medical contributor and textbook author. Email questions for Dr. Nina to editor@pressofac.com with “Dr. Nina” in the subject line. This article is for general information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions and cannot substitute for the advice from your medical professional.

Dr. Nina Radcliff, of Galloway Township, is a physician anesthesiologist, television medical contributor and textbook author. Email questions for Dr. Nina to editor@pressofac.com with “Dr. Nina” in the subject line. This article is for general information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions and cannot substitute for the advice from your medical professional.

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