You’ve heard it before: it’s important to “eat clean” when it comes to maintaining a well-rounded lifestyle. But what does that really mean? Eating clean for one person might mean a home-cooked meal of tofu and frozen vegetables, while for another it may be an organic raw, grain-free vegan meal.
A study conducted by Harvard Medical School, one of the first of its kind, explores the new field of nutritional psychiatry. This new way of thinking delves into the idea of how the quality of food people eat directly links to how well their brains work. For example, eating foods loaded with unnatural, refined, processed ingredients or eating GMOs (genetically modified organisms) will not fuel a productive brain as healthfully as in a person who eats high-quality foods rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. These vitamins, minerals and antioxidants protect the brain from oxidative stress, which is the accumulation of free radicals the body produces when it uses too much oxygen. This can ultimately damage cells. Multiple studies have shown a diet high in refined sugar can lead to developing mood disorders, such as depression and overall impaired brain function. Too much added sugar in your diet can also zap the mental motivation needed for other healthy activities, like exercise.
“It makes sense. If your brain is deprived of good-quality nutrition, or if free radicals or damaging inflammatory cells are circulating within the brain’s enclosed space, further contributing to brain tissue injury, consequences are to be expected. What’s interesting is that for many years, the medical field did not fully acknowledge the connection between mood and food,” said Dr. Eva Selhub, a contributing editor to Harvard Health Publications. “Today, fortunately, the burgeoning field of nutritional psychiatry is finding there are many consequences and correlations between not only what you eat, how you feel, and how you ultimately behave, but also the kinds of bacteria that live in your gut (Selhub).”
Food and Mood
Did you know that 95 percent of serotonin is produced in the gastrointestinal tract?
Serotonin acts as a neurotransmitter manufactured in the brain, it helps to relay messages from one part of the brain to another. Serotonin affects the functioning of the cardiovascular system, muscles and multiple parts of the endocrine system. The gastrointestinal tract is lined with a hundred million neurons, which means your digestive system doesn’t just help you to process food, it also helps you monitor your emotions. The function of those nerve cells and the natural production of serotonin are influenced by the billions of bacteria lining your intestinal tract. According to Harvard Medical School, these bacteria are important to your health because they:
- Protect the lining of intestines and ensure a barrier against toxins and harmful bacteria
- Limit inflammation
- Improve how well a person absorbs nutrients from their food
- Activate neural pathways that travel directly between the gut and brain
One way to add these “good” bacteria to your diet is to eat high-quality vegan probiotics, such as organic vegan yogurt, or to take a probiotic supplement. Studies have shown that people who take probiotics improve their:
- Anxiety levels
- Perception of stress
- Mental outlook
People with diets high in fruits, vegetables, unprocessed grains — and only modest amounts of processed foods and refined sugars — exhibit a 25 to 35 percent lower risk of depression than those who partake in the traditional Western diet. Many unprocessed foods are fermented, which act as natural probiotics. “Fermentation uses bacteria and yeast to convert sugar in food to carbon dioxide, alcohol, and lactic acid. It is used to protect food from spoiling and can add a pleasant taste and texture (Harvard Medical School).” Fermented foods can affect the degree of inflammation in your body and even improve mood and energy level.
Examples of fermented foods are:
- Vegan yogurt
- Kombucha (tea)
- Pickled garlic, pickled cucumbers, pickled beets, pickled radish or pickled relish
- Miso or soy sauce
- Korean kimchi
Recent studies support that diet is as important to mental health and wellbeing as it is to heart, digestive system and hormone health.
Here are a few nutrients to focus on that support brain health:
- Folate (spinach, lentils, chickpeas)
- Omega-3 fatty acids (DHA, walnuts)
- Complete vegan proteins (peanuts, peanut butter, quinoa, chia seeds)
- Vitamin D (mushrooms, D3 supplement)
- DHA supplement
Your body is like your bedroom – keep it clean and balanced and you will feel great; leave it messy and unbalanced and you will feel anxious and unkempt. When it comes to your diet, realizing there is no quick-fix to weight loss or wellbeing is important. Overall wellness comes from consistency in both diet and exercise. Eating well is a lifestyle, not just a phase. So the next time you’re in the grocery store, take care to purchase the best ingredients for you and your family. Read the labels, notice the ingredients and understand what they mean for you. It may seem more expensive initially to invest in high-quality foods, but when you eat smaller portions, plan your meals properly and feel better as an end result – you may find the extra cost is worth it. When we know diseases such as type 2 diabetes can be prevented, why wouldn’t quality food and exercise be a priority?
As the saying goes, we either invest in our health through our food now — or pay the hospital bills later.
“Start paying attention to how eating different foods makes you feel — not just in the moment but the next day. Try eating a clean diet for two to three weeks — that means cutting out all processed foods and sugar. Add fermented foods like kimchi, miso, sauerkraut, pickles or kombucha. You also might want to try going dairy-free — and some people even feel better when their diets are grain-free. See how you feel. Then slowly introduce foods back into your diet, one by one, and see how you feel (Selhub).”