On the Menu: Right nutrients can boost both mind and body
Food plays a very important contributing role in the development and management of mental health
Aubergine and coconut curry. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Fresh mackeral, sticky honey, soy, sesame and rice wine vinegar dressing. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
What we eat and drink can have both short-term and long-term effects on our mental health. Food plays an important contributing role in the development and management of disease. But it also helps in the prevention of specific mental health problems such as depression, schizophrenia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and Alzheimer’s disease.
A number of cross-country and population-based studies have linked the intake of certain nutrients and foods with depression. People with low intakes of the B-vitamin folate are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with depression than those with higher intakes. B vitamins work as essential co-factors with key enzymes to control the production and balance of our neurotransmitters such as serotonin. Disrupted levels have adverse effects on our brain chemistry.
Researchers are also examining the association between low levels of other B vitamins – B1, B2, B6 and B12 – and the incidence of depression. Studies suggest that as many as 50 per cent of people experienced greater relief of their symptoms when their standard treatments were supplemented with these micronutrients.
Alcohol has a depressant effect on our mood and the brain. It is also toxic to the body, so we rapidly metabolise it. This process is costly and uses up thiamine or vitamin B1 and can deplete stores of zinc and other nutrients too. As a result, thiamine deficiencies are common in heavy drinkers and can cause low mood, irritability, aggressive behaviour and even longer-term mental health problems.
But our mental health doesn’t just hinge on one or two isolated nutrients. It’s essential to look at groups of foods and patterns of intakes. Strong correlations have been observed between low intakes of fish (by country) and high levels of depression.
A greater adherence to the traditional Mediterranean diet is also associated with a significant improvement in overall health and a significant reduction in the incidence of Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease (BMJ systematic review 2008).
However, there is no one “miracle food” that can boost your brain power, although regularly adding certain foods may help you function at your best.
Wholegrains: Low Gi carbohydrates provide a steady supply of glucose or energy to the brain. The B vitamins found in wholegrains are also important for ensuring a healthy nervous system.
Oily fish: Preliminary studies suggest that people with bipolar disorder who take omega-3 fatty acids have a significantly longer period in which their mood is stable with no episodes of depression. Although more evidence is needed on this, we have plenty of other good reasons to eat oily fish.
Tomatoes: Japanese researchers found that those who reported eating tomatoes two-six times a week were 46 per cent less likely to report mild or severe symptoms of depression than those who ate tomatoes less than once a week. No such association was found for other vegetables.
Berries, especially blueberries: Oxidation can damage brain cells. This oxidative stress plays a role in many diseases associated with ageing such as dementia. Berries and many other fruits and vegetables contain powerful antioxidants pivotal for health.