A boost for your brain power


SHELF LIFE:In the second of our series looking at foods that can help different health conditions, we look at fuel for your brain

YOU’RE FEELING low – you reach for the packet of biscuits. Your boss wants a meeting – you search for the chocolate bar at the back of the drawer. Frequently we eat for emotional reasons rather than real hunger – “self-medicating” feelings of anxiety or depression with food.

Increasingly we know that our mental state is linked to our gut and what we choose to put into it. In fact, the “gut-brain axis” is now seen as an essential mechanism in how we deal with feelings of anxiety and stress.

The system also works in reverse – what we put into our mouths may satiate or block negative feelings for a while, but leads to a more persistent need for the same type of foods.

Eating sugary snacks, refined carbohydrates such as white breads and pastries sends our insulin levels upwards, giving a temporary energy boost and feeling of wellbeing. When the insulin “spike” falls, we feel worse and reach for a second biscuit, or a third.

This flip-flop cycle means that the simple foods we really need to get our brain functioning get pushed to the sidelines, or to the back of the fridge.

It’s not by chance that sugar and carbohydrates are what we hunt for when feeling low. Insulin produced by carbs clears a pathway for the amino acid tryptophan to act in the brain. This additional tryptophan makes it easier for serotonin (a contributor to feelings of happiness) to pass into the brain’s synapses. So if carbohydrates actually make us feel better, what can we eat that provides the mental and physical boost without the come down?

Researchers have found that magnesium may help dissipate feelings of stress or episodes of fear or panic.

Broccoli, pumpkin seeds and dried apricots are all high in magnesium which has been found in trials to have positive results in regulating anxiety.

Combining raw chopped broccoli, feta cheese, pine nuts and tomatoes in a simple salad ticks all these boxes. Add some lemon juice and chopped olives for extra bite and you’ve a complete meal that will lift your mood with both an immediate and long-term boost of fuel.

Vegetables with dark green colour like broccoli are also high in folate, which helps produce red blood cells. If you’re feeling low or irritable, it could be that you’re not eating enough folate. If you blanche at the thought of cooking cabbage or lentils, try cooking baked beans on toast, scrambled eggs or snack on peanuts or sunflower seeds. All will give your red blood cells a kick-start without the energy crash a half hour later.

If you’re prone to worrying, the amino acids L-lysine and L-arginine have been found to help anxiety and are plentiful in animal proteins like fish, meat and protein. Both are present in tuna, nuts and watercress and help manufacture the proteins needed in enzymes, antibodies and other functions. They also have a role in keeping neurotransmitters – the brain’s communication system – running smoothly.

Cheese, particularly parmesan, is rich in lysine, as is cod and quinoa. Quinoa (pronounced keen-wah) is a type of grain which contains lysine, zinc, magnesium and folate. Quinoa is cooked in the same way as rice and is a great salad base. Add sardines, a scattering of peas, parsley and lemon and you have a superfood salad that will boost your brain and body.

Most famous of the “brain foods” are the omega 3 fatty acids found particularly in oily fish such as salmon and tuna. It’s no wonder that the Mediterranean diet produces health benefits as a niçoise salad has all the greats – tuna, eggs, lettuce, tomato, anchovies and a scattering of olives and vinaigrette.

If it’s brain food you need, look no further and, when in doubt, always turn to fish.