Can eating certain foods really help your mental wellbeing and cognitive function? A nutritionist explains…
Food can hugely impact our mental health, both in the short term and the long term. What we eat doesn’t only impact our immediate energy levels and concentration throughout the day, but can also improve overall cognitive function and prevent disease.
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How gut health affects our emotions and mood
“When it comes to brain health, so much of it comes down to what’s going on in our gut,” says nutritionist Cheryl Telfer. “Our gut plays a huge role in sending the right signals and hormones up to our brain. What we eat can optimise the microbiome in our gut and that will have an effect on mental health.”
As some studies show that improving gut microbiota can be helpful for people suffering from anxiety and depression, what can we eat to boost our mood? Complex carbs are the answer, says Cheryl. “This is because these foods act as a prebiotic, meaning they feed the bacteria in your gut,” she explains, recommending sweet potato, root vegetables and whole grains.
And these carbohydrates aren’t just key for supporting our mood. They can also improve concentration and energy levels. “They are filled with soluble fibre, meaning that the body doesn’t process it as fast, so your energy is more sustained,” explains Cheryl.
However, carbohydrates aren’t the only substance we should be including in our diet when we need a mental boost. Certain herbs called adaptogens can help to reduce mental stress and fatigue. They have been used in Ayurvedic medicine, a traditional, natural healing belief, for years, and while they are not widely studied there is some research that suggests they can support our brains with little side effects. Some adaptogenic herbs that Cheryl recommends are:
- Rhodiola, which was found to potentially be helpful for enhancing physical performance and alleviating mental fatigue in research from the University of Alberta.
- Holy basil, which “is an effective treatment for lifestyle-related chronic diseases including diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and psychological stress,” according to a study from the Melbourne University.
- Ashwagandha, which has been found to safely and effectively improve an individual’s resistance towards stress by researchers at Asha Hospital, India.
But what about long term brain health? There are two types of food to think about there: omega-3s and vitamin D. “When it comes to diseases like Alzheimer’s there’s a huge link with these nutrient deficiencies,” says Cheryl. According to the Alzheimer’s Society, Omega-3s are “involved in protecting cells from a harmful process called oxidative stress [which] may contribute towards the development of Alzheimer’s disease.” And, according to the American Academy of Neurology, people with low levels of vitamin D have a 53% increased risk of developing dementia.
That means we need to make sure that we eat enough fish (current NHS guidelines say that we should eat two portions of a week) to get in those brain-supporting Omegas, as well as get enough vitamin D through spending time outside in the sunshine and supplementing where necessary.
It’s also worth considering anti-inflammatories. While this is a buzzy-term, reducing inflammation in the body can be beneficial to your brain and reduce your risk of illness. “There’s always a level of inflammation in the body but we don’t want to over-inflame it,” explains Cheryl. “An anti-inflammatory diet is one that is full of whole foods that work to regulate the body so that all part of it are working optimally, including the brain.”
“Ultimately, there’s no one thing you can eat that will negate for a lack of other things,” Cheryl adds. So, focus on getting a well-rounded diet that includes mood-boosting, high-fibre carbohydrates, lots of nutrients and supporting your body with herbs and supplements where necessary.
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Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).