If you can take good care of your body, you will be in a much better state to deal with any mental health issues. As a kid, my family always told me what kind of food I should eat to keep healthy. Mental health is obviously highly linked to your brain health, so it only makes sense that eating good, nourishing, nutritious food is good for your overall mental health.
You might often hear from fitness professionals that the secret of getting into shape is actually 70% diet and 30% exercise. Similarly (but not statistically), eating mindfully and having a balanced, nutritious diet does wonders for your mental health. These healthy practices not only benefit your physical health and body, they help your brain! Now, we can’t expect any kind of diet or eating specific kinds of food will miraculously cure mental illnesses. It won’t. But perhaps we can help our brain along with its recovery process by giving it the nutrients it needs.
There are a number of chemicals that affect your mood and brain health. Let us take a look!
Dopamine plays a big role in the reward-motivated behaviours of human beings. It gives us the feel-good factor to spur us on so that we can achieve bigger and better things in our lives. Eggs and Spirulina both contain tyrosine, which synthesizes dopamine. Fish contains Omega-3, which is often linked to the production of dopamine.
Endorphines are essentially a painkiller. They minimize the perception of pain in our mind. This is what keeps us going during a grueling, painful workout, or a late night of study and work. This will be music to the ears for those who are chocolate lovers: cocoa contains phenethylamine. It is believed that phenethylamine boosts endorphines. However, moderation is key – I’m a chocoholic with the best of them, but this isn’t a license to eat as much chocolate as we want!
Serotonin creates the feeling of pride and loyalty, amongst other things. This chemical creates a sense of belonging with others. A lack of serotonin is also linked to depression, anxiety, and other mood related issues. One of the food options that may help is eggs, which contain tryptophan. Tryptophan synthesizes serotonin and may encourage your brain to produce more of it!
Oxytocin in the brain creates the sense of trust, intimacy, and the feeling that someone will protect and take care of you. It promotes the feeling of safety. In fact, sometimes oxytocin is called the “love hormone.” Basically, eating any food may stimulate the release of oxytocin, which can be a double edged sword! Eating promotes oxytocin, but sometimes we might eat too much when chasing the feeling – again, moderation is key!
Glutamate acts as a neurotransmitter and encourages many brain activities. However, too much glutamate may lead to anxiety. Both plant and animal proteins contain glutamic acid. Our bodies are also capable of creating glutamic acid, so you don’t have to worry too much about choosing food that contains glutamate specifically.
gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA)
GABA inhibits brain activities. A balance of GABA and Glutamate must be maintained for optimal brain health. Fermented foods, such as Kimchi, contain plenty of GABA. The popular Chinese tea, Pu-Erh, also contains bioactive GABA.
Norepinephrine is the chemical responsible for the fight or flight mechanism in human beings. Too much of this chemical can make you feel sleepy and tired. Too little norepinephrine can lead to symptoms of anxiety. Foods rich in protein stimulate the production of this chemical and may help keep a healthy balance.
By Andrew Neufeld, BA, MC, RCC, Birkman Consultant
If you would like to learn more about the connection between food and mental health, please contact your registered dietitian. Your counsellor and dietitian can also work together as your team of family health advisors – they can come alongside you to create the most optimal health plan for you and your family. If you have any questions, please call 604-283-7827 and reach Andrew Neufeld at extension 701 or Annie Tsang at extension 712.