Can food affect your thoughts? Are you patient and zen when you’re hungry? How’s your mood after a few days of eating well? More and more, we’re seeing that ‘mental’ health can’t be separated from overall health and that our moods, emotions and thinking abilities are all influenced by the food that we eat. Here are a few ways to feed your mind.
1. Irritability and blood sugar. This is where you can get really quick wins because a few tweaks to your meals can give you a much steadier mood through the day. If you have trigger times when you really notice hunger and find stress-levels shooting up dramatically, think back to your last meal. Did it contain a decent amount of protein? Was it high in ‘white’ carbs? Often, tackling breakfast has positive effects for the whole day, so think about including eggs, big spoonfuls of nuts and seeds or greek yoghurt. When it comes to snacking, high-carb foods and coffee are just going to keep you on that blood sugar rollercoaster so aim to have better alternatives to hand - nuts, chicken drumsticks or celery sticks filled with nut butter.
2. Eat purple foods. The compounds that give the purple colour have antioxidant properties and are able to squeeze through the blood-brain-barrier to bring their benefits to brain cells. They’re thought to support blood flow and cognitive function. Blueberries, blackcurrants, red cabbage, purple sprouting broccoli, blackberries, plums, red onions and beetroot are all great foods to choose.
3. Become a fan of fermented foods. The gut-brain connection is one of the hottest topics in medical science at present, especially the link between the bacterial colonies in the gut and mental health. Although research on humans is at an early stage, having lots of variety in your microbes seems to be linked to positive mental health outcomes. One way to support this is to eat fermented foods, so miso paste, kefir, live yoghurt, live saurkraut and kimchi. Plain milk kefir is available in most big supermarkets now and tastes great either on its own or in a smoothie with some of the wonderful berries listed above. Fresh kimchi can usually be found in chinese supermarkets and makes a great lunch with brown rice and a fried egg or two.
4. Remember rosemary. It's so interesting that rosemary has been associated with remembrance since ancient times and now we have studies that show that even just the smell of rosemary can measurably improve memory scores (after reading about this I always took a sprig to sniff into my nutrition exams!). As well as obviously pairing well with lamb and chicken, rosemary is also lovely with mushrooms, roast potatoes, or you can just bash a sprig to release the oils and then add boiling water to make rosemary tea.
5. Choose healthy fats. The human brain is nearly 60% fat and it works as an insulating substance on neurons - a bit like the plastic coating on electrical wires. A specific type of fat that can help to protect nerve cells is Omega 3, with the best food sources being oily fish and oysters. If you don’t like to cook these at home, perhaps choose them when you’re eating out - or consider a good quality fish oil supplement. The fats to avoid are heavily processed seed oils such as vegetable/sunflower/canola oil which are heavily processed and can drive inflammation in the body. Most people that I see already cook with extra-virgin olive oil at home so it’s mainly in processed foods that these sorts of fats slip into the diet.
6. Hydrate and concentrate. Even mild dehydration has been shown to affect our ability to concentrate so make sure that you’re drinking 1.5 - 2 litres of water/herbal tea (more if you are exercising hard) and that it’s spread through the day.
7. Walnuts and the doctrine of signatures. The doctrine of signatures is a cool idea in folk medicine where foods that look like a part of the body, are good for that part of the body. Walnuts are a great example because they look like a brain, and are often associated with supporting brain health. They contain omega 3 fats which have a protective effect on neurons, they’re also high in antioxidants, and studies seem to show that adults who eat more nuts hold onto their cognitive abilities longer than people who don’t. Going back to the doctrine of signatures, trying to think what foods are associated with which organs is good fun (for nutrition nerds...) - obvious ones are kidney beans for the kidneys, tomatoes for the heart, but then you also get carrots (cut into rounds) for eyes, and ginger for the stomach.
These are just a few ideas, but looking at diets as a whole, a recent clinical trial showed that following a mediterranean-style diet with vegetables and fruits, wholegrains, beans/legumes, eggs, unprocessed meats, nuts and olive oil brought people remission from depression at rates that compare positively to the rates shown in people using pharmaceutical antidepressants. A fantastic, positive study that demonstrates the power of food!