Your system encompasses a wide range of muscles, bones and organs—and systems need quality fuel. The saying “running on empty” is more than a metaphor. It’s a succinct way of reminding us that how we fuel ourselves directly impacts the health and functionality of our system. There’s a strong connection between nutrition and all aspects of our health, including mental. Anyone who’s taken a test hungry knows exactly how challenging it can be to focus, recall information, and indulge in critical thinking skills.
Our nutrition, or lack thereof, can play a role in our mental health on both a short- and long-term basis. Immediate fuel, such as carbs or sugar, can give us a temporary mental and physical boost. However, it will be short-lived and might come with side effects such as a “crash” if this strategy is used in lieu of ongoing good nutrition. There are also links between addiction and brain function. Food addiction, whether it’s a tendency to binge or addiction to a certain ingredient like simple sugar, can really do a number on the brain.
Here are a few ways nutrition drives mental health, and how to maximize its benefits:
1. “Brain food” is a real thing. Some foods have been shown in studies to tackle dementia and Alzheimer’s, particularly if they’re loaded with mono-unsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids. These foods include garlic and walnuts, which are both pretty simple to incorporate into your daily diet. A few crushed walnuts on top of a yogurt or in a granola, and adding garlic to a variety of dishes (or taken as a supplement) are both simple ways to feed the brain.
2. The role of food in eating disorders. Eating disorders including binge eating disorder, anorexia, bulimia, and orthorexia (addiction to clean eating and lifestyle) have incredible ties between nutrition and the brain. Obesity and anorexia have both been shown in studies to be driven from the reward system of the brain (dopamine). However, they operate in opposite fashions. In healthy people, the brain is directed to respond in a healthy way via dopamine to the consumption of “good” food. This system is compromised in those with eating disorders.
3. Addiction can trick the brain. Mental health, just like physical health, is on a spectrum and is constantly changing. The brain isn’t a perfect machine and it has vulnerabilities—in fact, addiction hijacks the brain. According to experts in addiction, “We’ve long since known that addiction hijacks the brain’s reward pathway, but a new meta-analysis has provided a bit more insight into the matter. Basically, the study found that parts of the reward system that involve reward anticipation are weakened in people who suffer from addiction… unless the behavior in question involves substance abuse. In other words, addicts experience stronger reward anticipation where alcohol and drugs are involved and weaker reward anticipation is basically every other instance.”
4. Diversification is key. Just like your financial portfolio, diversification of healthy foods is paramount for mental health. However, humans are creatures of habit. Many of us will stick to the same foods we know for weeks, months and even years. It’s also rare to regularly ask doctors for a full panel screening of potential deficiencies. In other words, we often don’t know what and where we’re lacking in nutrition. Taking supplements, such as ginseng, can be a great way to balance out our diet (although it’s still best to get the bulk of nutrition from foods). However, supplements like ginseng which have been shown to increase brain function can be an easy addition to daily regimens.
Another approach is gauging diet, and perhaps adopting lipotropic foods for well being or a low-carb, high-protein diet for those struggling with sugar addiction. Lipotropic diet is rich in inositol and betaine, which can boost mental clarity. Foods aligned with this diet include eggs, peanuts, milk, and liver. All of these foods are rich in choline, which is found in B-complex vitamins, and the Food and Nutrition Board suggests a minimum of 425mg of choline per day (one egg has 126mg). Betaine is an amino acid, and can be found in quinoa, beets, spinach and wheat bran.
However you fuel your body, do so under the guidance of a doctor and perhaps nutritionist who can keep track of your needs, deficiencies, and perhaps over-consumption of foods or supplements. Too much of a good thing can backfire, harming your mental and physical health. For example, although Brazil nuts are very healthy and high in B-vitamins for mental health, they also pack a power punch of selenium. Selenium is toxic in high doses, and even a couple of handfuls of these nuts per day can be dangerous. Tackle nutrition and mental health wisely and with experts at your side.
Trevor is a freelance writer and recovering addict & alcoholic who has been clean and sober for over 5 years. Since his recovery began he has enjoyed using his talent for words to help spread treatment resources and addiction awareness. In his free time, you can find him working with recovering addicts or outside enjoying about any type of fitness activity imaginable.
*Disclaimer: The ideas and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of Zensorium.
Interested to become a Guest Writer on our Blog?
Read our guidelines to find out more!
Follow us on: