Many people eat a certain way to improve athletic performance. They choose low-carb or some other way of eating in hopes it might improve their mile time or help them build muscle.
Eating to fuel muscles is common as are diets that reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, such as the DASH diet. But how many people eat in a way to improve brain health? Not so many. What many don't realize is that the brain needs fuel, because, like the heart, it never stops. In fact, the mind is what keeps every other system in the body going. While it might be a funny commercial, popping a candy bar isn't the best way to improve mental focus and function. What you eat directly impacts the brain in ways a lot of people don't fully understand.
While most foods are broken down by the body to various sugars, that doesn't mean the brain just needs a few lollipops to stay healthy. Quality in, quality out. In nutrition, eating the best food for the mind is a crucial part of staying healthy. Free radicals are cellular waste products. Cells that are damaged must get rid of this waste, but free radicals can damage other cells. Better quality foods do not result in as much oxidative stress and free radicals. Processed foods that contain chemicals and high amounts of sugar or sodium are difficult for the body to handle and result in more waste. Many clinical research studies show a correlation between a poor diet and the exacerbation of mental illnesses like depression and anxiety.
Poor nutrition also created high levels of inflammation and can spike insulin levels, and that process definitely impacts brain health. A new field of study has come about as a result of research into diet and mental health. It's called "Nutritional Psychiatry," and it's about finding the best fuel for the brain since it's the supercomputer that keeps the rest of the body running.
The gut is referred to as "the second brain" so what goes in your belly will have an effect on the brain. Serotonin is a well-known neurotransmitter, but 95% of the serotonin in the body is produced in the gut, which is also home to millions of neurons. There have to be enough "good bacteria" in the gastrointestinal tract to process the food we eat and keep the brain running on quality fuel. Serotonin regulates the body's response to pain, it helps normalize sleep cycles, and it impacts mood and appetite. The neurons in the gut are the body's first line of defense, so creating a diet that benefits the brain also helps the rest of the body.
Research that focuses on the Mediterranean diet, the Nordic diet, or other non-Western diets has consistently shown a benefit to those with specific forms of mental illness like depression. Some studies have even shown a correlation between a reduced incidence of dementia among those who follow a diet that contains fresh vegetables, lean proteins like fish, and reduced amounts of processed foods, sugar and red meat. Cravings impact mood as well; sometimes your brain just wants some junk food.
The video below talks about the emerging field of nutritional psychiatry and how what we eat impacts our mood, brain function, and mental health. Check it out.