The cool months have emerged and that often means viruses, but also comfort food… and extra kilos. If we ever needed to understand the value that food plays in our immune system and mental health, it is now.
Deakin University and Prof Felice Jacka are leading international research on how what we eat affects our moods. Their research has found that swapping, over 12 weeks, refined carbs for foods with natural sugar – not added sugar, and packaged foods for more wholegrains, vegetables and fish, reduced levels of moderate to severe depression.
How to we feed the brain to improve its wellbeing.
“Human brains need antioxidants from foods such as vegetables, fruit, legumes, wholegrains, nuts and seeds to help protect against oxidative stress – a kind of rusting of the cells that’s linked to depression”, says Professor Felice Jacka, director of the Food and Mood Centre.
Added sugar in treats and junk food (or “couch food” or “social loafing” food) add to inflammation and oxidative stress.
Fertilise the Brain
There’s also “brain manure” – Jacka’s name for BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), a protein that acts like fertiliser, helping to maintain existing brain cells and grow new ones.
Research shows that the things we can do to boost production of this ‘fertiliser’ are exercise and eating well. People who have depression often have smaller hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that is key to learning, memory and mental health.
Diets that reduce inflammation are imperative to brain health as well. Inflammation is linked to depression, dementia, and other chronic diseases. Foods rich in nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, flavonoids (found in fruit, vegetables and tea), and resveratrol – a polyphenol found in red grapes, and other fruits and red wine, stimulate the growth of new brain cells as well.
The superhighway between the gut and mind
Eating foods that feed friendly gut bacteria may also benefit the brain. Coconut yogurt, kefir, pickles, sauerkraut, and kombucha are readily accessible for daily consumption. More research is needed, and recent New Zealand research found that giving women a probiotic supplement in pregnancy and for a few weeks after birth reduced levels of depression and anxiety.
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There’s still much to learn about this gut-brain link, she stresses, but it’s why her own diet includes fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kefir. “They contain many of the valuable products of fermentation, including neurotransmitters and anti-inflammatory molecules which may turn out to have benefits for the brain and mental health,” she says.
Do not shrink your brain, shrink your waist
Deakin University 2015 study of older adults found that the hippocampus is smaller in people with diets high in sweet drinks, salty snacks and processed meats compared with those eating more nutrient-rich foods. This study made international news and rightly so.
Too much ultra-processed food is problematic in two ways. One is that over processing strips out the nutrients that help protect the brain. The other is that processed foods stoke low-level inflammation.
Traditional diets with more whole foods like the Mediterranean diet are consistently linked to less depression because they are nutritional and whole, not packaged and processed.
Nutrition and brain health are not age specific… brain health is important at any age. “But it’s especially important for the next generation, given that around 40 per cent of Australian adolescents’ kilojoules come from junk food,” Jacka says.
We cannot control many things when it comes to depression, anxiety, and mood disorders as they are multifactorial health conditions. But what we do know is that we can control what we eat. It is alarming how much of the adolescent diet is made up of junk food as half of all mental disorders emerge before the age of 14. These complex problems do not require an extreme approach, but instead, small, wise shifts away from sugar laden processed foods that have no brain fuel.
If your interested in taking a deeper dive into moving to a whole food way of life that is not punishing but nourishing join us on June 15 for https://ahview.wpengine.com/low-sugar-lifestyle/