Suicide prevention at Tahoe: Eating healthy key to positive mental health
Special to the Sun
Research linking mental health outcomes with nutrition is growing. Scientists are studying how particular nutrients and food components play a role in the micro-workings of the brain as well as overall mental health outcomes.
These studies give us information on how we can eat to promote mental wellness and stave off or manage mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, addiction and other disorders such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Making balanced and issue-specific food choices as noted below can help support healthy brain functioning and emotional stability. They can also support the work of prescribed medications and decrease symptoms of previously diagnosed disorders.
Here are some of the nutrients/foods that have been found to impact mental health:
Glucose, which is made from digestion of carbohydrates, is required by the brain for fuel. When someone eats a high sugar (simple carbohydrate) diet, the blood glucose swings cause “starts and stops” within the brain, resulting in what is commonly referred to as a “crash” once that energy has been used up.
Avoiding concentrated sweets like sodas, juices and desserts and choosing more high fiber options like whole grains (such as oats, barley, and quinoa), beans, vegetables and whole fruit is a good way to keep energy levels and emotions consistent through the day.
Balancing small to moderate portions of carbs with healthy fats and proteins can prevent blood sugar swings, as well.
Ninety-five percent of the neurotransmitter serotonin (a mood, sleep, pain and appetite regulator) is produced in your gut. Mounting evidence is revealing that in order for serotonin and other neurotransmitters to be created and function properly, your intestines must be populated with billions of good bacteria, also called probiotics.
Probiotics have been shown to activate neural pathways between the gut and brain as well as inhibit inflammation, boost immunity and improve nutrient absorption.
Studies have identified links between depression rates and the amount of probiotics in one’s diet. They have also shown a decrease in anxiety, stress and mental outlook among people who supplemented probiotics compared with those who did not.
Foods that are good sources of probiotics include live-active-cultures-containing: kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi, tempeh and some other pickled vegetables.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Foods that contain these healthy fats protect neurons and support communication between nerve cells.
Omega-3 fatty acids that come from fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, sardines and trout — and from plant sources such as ground flaxseeds and chia seeds — have been shown to reduce symptoms of schizophrenia, depression, ADHD and other mental disorders. Omega-3s may also help boost learning and memory.
These foods provide amino acids that are used to assist in production and proper functioning of neurotransmitters. Spreading lean proteins out throughout the day can help keep these levels stable.
Options include fish, turkey, chicken, eggs, cheese, Greek yogurt and beans. Consuming equal amounts of protein (about 20 grams) at each meal, three times a day, can also help one feel energized throughout the day and help brain function.
Next time you want to prevent your 2 p.m. brain crash, try grabbing a Greek yogurt instead of a piece of candy!
These nutrient powerhouses are high in folate, selenium and other vitamins/minerals that may reduce risk for depression, fatigue, anxiety and insomnia. Other sources of these nutrients include onions, chicken, walnuts, Brazil nuts and whole grains.
In addition to the above foods, it is crucial to consume an overall balanced diet that includes foods from all food groups and a variety of colors of fruits and vegetables to provide the building blocks for brain tissue, neurotransmitters and other enzymes that are necessary for moving signals between separate parts of the body and brain.
“You are what you eat” may be a common saying, but another equally appropriate one could be “you feel what you eat.”
Dana Dose, RDN, LD, CDE is part of the Rethink Healthy team of the Wellness Neighborhood and provides outpatient nutrition counseling as well as clinical dietitian services for the Tahoe Forest Health System. Contact us at 530-587-3769.