Have you ever thought about how what you eat may affect your daily mood? Our brains are constantly working and demand approximately 20% of our daily energy needs. There is a direct correlation between our gastrointestinal system and the brain. It is important to take a closer look at our diets as what we eat directly affects the structure and function of our brains, and ultimately our mood.
Diet and Mood Disorders
Multiple studies have been done to support the link between what we eat and our risk of depression and ADHD in children. Major depressive disorder is the most common mood disorder in the U.S. The way we nourish our bodies has become such an important part of mental health; it has even inspired an entire new field of medicine called nutrition psychiatry. There are studies that have compared the Western Diet to other diets, such as the Mediterranean diet, and how they affect mood disorders. These studies found that the risk of depression is 25-35% lower in those who eat a Mediterranean diet, which is rich in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, fish, and moderate amounts of lean meats and dairy. A different study that involved 120 children and adolescents, showed a higher prevalence of ADHD with the Western diet, which consists of fast food, sugar, refined foods, and sugar-sweetened beverages.
Fast Sugar vs. Slow Sugar
Fast-release carbohydrates, or high glycemic index foods (we will call them “fast sugar” foods), release glucose faster into the bloodstream, which causes spike in blood sugar levels. Slow-release carbohydrates, or low glycemic index foods (we will call them “slow sugar” foods), provide a slower and more sustained release of energy. Therefore, fast sugars digest quicker and absorb in the brain faster than slow sugars, which cause overall lower concentration levels. High blood sugar levels cause decline in brain function which lead to learning deficiencies and weak memory/cognitive functions.
Foods for Better Brain Function
Almonds, cashews, peanuts, walnuts, pumpkin, sesame and sunflower seeds all provide magnesium, which helps with anxiety. They also provide tryptophan (an amino acid) that helps produce serotonin (happy hormone) in the brain. Reduced serotonin levels ultimately can lead to increased stress, anxiety and depression. *Quick tip: Vitamin B6 (found in chicken, turkey, eggs, spinach, carrots, peanuts, amongst other foods) works with tryptophan to help relax our bodies and helps with memory loss.
Has antioxidants that increase blood flow to the brain and helps improve memory. Look for bars with at least 70% cacao or more, as they will guarantee less additives like sugar and cream.
Contains “good fat” that helps enhance focus, eliminate fatigue, and boost mood. Also provides amino acids, which help fuel neurotransmitters in the brain to boost serotonin levels that stabilize mood, promote focus and prevent depression.
Omega-3 fatty acids also contain “good fat” that has been linked to lower levels of depression and enhance brain development. Experts recommend most adults get at least 250-500 mg per day. Salmon and albacore tuna are good sources, while a 3.5 ounce of salmon provides 2,260 mg of omega-3 fatty acids.
Kimchi, yogurt, kefir, kombucha and sauerkraut are all fermented foods that allow live bacteria to thrive, which create probiotics. Probiotics support the growth of healthy bacteria in the gastrointestinal system and may increase serotonin levels. Up to 90% of the body’s serotonin is produced by the gut microbiome, which affects mood, stress response, appetite and sexual drive.
Written By: Jessica Ortiz, RD, LDN