The healing power of food has been well documented throughout history. Cultures throughout the world have used food—fruits, vegetables, herbs and animal products—to ward off disease and prevent ailments and pain. Now we live in an age when advances in technology allow us to take a closer look at food and discover why and how it heals. Certain ingredients in food are being identified, giving people the ability to eat well and reduce disease.
In our fast-paced society, anxiety and depression are growing at an alarming rate. Research tells us that our mind and body are connected, and what we put in our bodies has a huge impact on our moods and our mental health. Dr Mosaraf Ali, author and proponent of integrated medicine, says, “What we eat and drink affects not only our physical wellbeing, but our mental state. I always say ‘mind over matter is matter undermined.’ ”
Deepali Vasani, a dietitian at Sydney’s Blacktown Hospital, treated a woman diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, anxiety and depression.
“She was uncomfortable travelling on public transport and being in crowded places such as shopping malls. She was mainly living on takeaway meals, as she did not like many foods.
“During our sessions we covered the effect on our health of kilojoule-dense foods. She began making changes to the foods she ate, slowly at first, and also improved her hydration. In just six weeks there were obvious improvements in her physical health, but also in her mental health, even her confidence in moving around in the community.” A simple change in diet can effect a change in our mental health.
Foods for brain health and happier moods
There are simple ways we can change our diet to make it more energy- and mood-aiding, which in turn will help with managing stress. A balanced diet is important for brain health and stable blood sugar levels. And our blood sugar levels influence our moods and emotions. Various chemicals in the brain influence our mood. Some amino acids consumed through protein in foods are forerunners for the brain chemicals, meaning that they are converted to the chemicals once digested or absorbed.
Foods to avoid
Foods high in sugar. These will sap your energy and can affect mood negatively. Refined sugars are broken down quickly, causing unhealthy spikes in our blood sugar that can leave us feeling down. Whole fruits and naturally sweet products are fine in moderation, but lollies, cakes, biscuits, refined flour products and soft drinks all cause your blood sugar to spike then plummet. The resulting low levels of blood sugar produce feelings of irritability, tension and depression.
Processed and refined foods. These foods are low in the nutrients our body needs to produce and sustain energy and for healthy moods.
Low protein foods. A diet high in carbohydrate-rich foods may mean you are not eating enough protein. Protein-rich foods may help support healthier moods, as they help us to feel full and nourished
Alcohol. While having a couple of drinks may make you feel happy at the time, the after-effects aren’t good. Having an alcoholic drink has been found to disrupt sleep, cause changes in blood sugar levels and bring about depressive thoughts when you sober up.
Coffee. Coffee is a central nervous system stimulant that can aggravate feelings of anxiety. Caffeine can disturb sleep and cause insomnia, a common side-effect of anxiety. Sleep is essential for brain health and mental wellbeing, so skip that cuppa and try some alternative drinks such as herbal teas or plain water.
Foods to eat
Protein-rich foods. Protein is needed for neurotransmitter (brain chemical) production. Amino acids are the building blocks for proteins. Protein comes from many foods such as eggs, tofu, dairy, meat and seafood. Protein also helps sustain energy levels because of its satisfying effect, which may prevent your moods from wavering.
Whole-food carbohydrate sources. Carbohydrates come from foods such as grains, legumes and fruits, as well as from sweeteners such as honey, sugar and maple syrup.
Foods rich in B vitamins. B vitamins are important for your nervous system, neurotransmitter production, blood health and energy production. B vitamins are found in many different foods, including leafy vegetables, animal products, dairy products, seeds, legumes, nutritional yeasts, eggs and fruits.
Antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables. Colourful fruits and vegetables are sources of many vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals, all important for a healthy brain and body.
Essential fatty acid-rich foods. Your brain is largely comprised of fat. One fat that is especially important for brain health is essential fatty acids. Essential fatty acids, abundant in whole foods, are also anti-inflammatory, which is important for overall brain health. Essential fatty acids are needed for the health of your brain’s neurons.
Water. Drinking enough water is important for perfusion—the blood flow to the brain. Water is also vital for blood volume and keeping the body’s temperature regulated. Try infusing water with certain spices to make teas for calming and relaxing, as well as a hydrating experience.
Theanine. Theanine is helpful in improving mood and increasing a sense of relaxation. In fact, it’s used in Japan for just that purpose. The calming effect of theanine is the reason drinking green tea (even though it contains caffeine) doesn’t produce the same jittery experience as drinking coffee.
Nutritional tips to aid anxiety
- Increase magnesium–rich foods. Magnesium helps with anxiety, as it relaxes muscles and regulates many enzymes in the body. Foods rich in magnesium include leafy vegetables, sunflower seeds, kale, spring greens, dark chocolate and cacao powder.
- Snack on nuts and seeds. These provide some omega-3, magnesium and some protein to balance blood sugar levels.
- Eat good-quality proteins. Combined with good-quality carbohydrates, they create a meal that will easily digest, releasing its energy slowly and drip-feeding your blood sugar.
- Take a magnesium supplement. Consider up to 1000 mg daily.
Nutritional tips to aid depression
- Increase your folate intake. Folate is associated with a lower risk of depression. It is found in bananas, eggs, nuts, seeds, spinach and chickpeas—all good sources of the amino acid tryptophan. Leafy green vegetables such as spinach and kale, fruits, nuts, beans and wholegrains have high amounts of folate or folic acid.
- Eat wholegrains such as brown rice, eggs and dairy to get an adequate intake of B vitamins (especially B12 and B6) and folic acid. Pumpkin seeds are a good-quality vegetarian source of zinc.
- Consider supplementing with omega-3. Look for a supplement that contains at least 750 mg of EPA and 250 mg of DHA and take this twice daily.
- Get plenty of vitamin D. Rates of depression are higher in people with a vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is needed to help the body absorb calcium for strong teeth and bones, health of muscles and the immune system. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with heart disease and increased risk of heart attacks.
For a healthier nervous system
Berries. Blueberries and blackberries are both rich sources of a group of compounds called flavonoids. These have been shown to have a significant effect upon the cardiovascular system and a positive impact on the brain.
Lentils. Like most legumes, lentils are an incredibly rich source of most of the B vitamins. This provides many benefits for the brain and nervous system.
Kale. Like all greens, kale is very dense in the mineral magnesium, which can have a relaxing effect on the nervous system and the muscles. It is also helpful for anxiety and has good levels of iron and vitamin C.
Salmon. Although a plant-based diet is best, salmon is one of the most palatable of the oily fish, versatile and packed with the important omega-3 fatty acids.
Eggs are rich in protein and have a very low GI, so they can keep blood sugar levels stable. They are also a rich source of choline, imperative for memory and learning.
Quinoa is a great grain alternative to rice, white bread, white rice, white pasta and potatoes, all of which release their sugars quickly, causing an initial blood sugar rush that quickly comes crashing down once the body’s insulin has dealt with it.