You Are What You Eat
How Food Affects The Functioning Of Our Brains
We’ve all heard that quote
You are what you eat
…but we often forget that what we eat affects our brains just as much as it does our bodies. In fact, there is an entire branch of psychiatry dedicated to exploring the links between nutrition and brain function, this field is known as nutritional psychiatry.
Essentially what they are saying is … that what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood.
For many years, the medical field did not fully acknowledge the connection between mood and food and it is only recently that significant advances have been made in our understanding based on evidence has come out in support of nutritional psychiatry.
The reason food has such an effect on your body is serotonin.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep and appetite, mediate moods and inhibit pain.
Since about 95% of your serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract, and your gastrointestinal tract is lined with a hundred million nerve cells, or neurons, it makes sense that the inner workings of your digestive system don’t just help you digest food, but also guide your emotions.
Differences that different diets can have on mood and mental health.
All over the world, different ethnic groups evolved within different environmental constraints and developed diets that were suited to the climates that they lived in.
These ‘traditional’ diets typically included Asian, Mediterranean and Middle eastern food typically that we have all grown fond of with the fine food renaissance we are experiencing at the moment. On the other side of the spectrum lives what we commonly know as the ‘western diet’. This is largely a new invention that came to fruition as a result of the industrial revolution which further resulted in the food manufacturing revolution, as the need for eating had to now fit into increasing demands for people to be away from their homes.
Scientists have now turned their focus to understanding the impacts a typical western diet has on our health compared to the emerging benefit evident in more traditional diets. They account for this difference because traditional diets tend to be high in vegetables, fruits, unprocessed grains, fish and seafood and tend to contain only modest amounts of lean meats and dairy. Traditional diets are also void of processed and refined foods and sugars… all of which have become staples of the typical western diet.
Traditional diets have the added benefits of natural probiotics because traditional unprocessed foods are preserved natural by fermentation. New research shows that these natural probiotics act to improve gut function and elevate mood.
So what can you do to moderate your diet?
One incredibly important pointer would be to cut down on refined carbs [breads, pastas, baked goods etc] and another is to alternate between different types of diets.
By incorporating more fermented foods that can be typically found in most Asian and European foods you bring into your system fermented foods that have been exposed to natural, beneficial bacteria called lactobacilli.
This good bacteria feed on the starches and sugars in the food, converting them to tangy, sour-tasting lactic acid which so many traditional cuisines are renown for. Many foodies wax lyrical about the wonders of kimchi, sauerkraut and yogurt, and the more adventurous among them extol the virtues of kombucha, kefir, miso, tempeh. Most of us already a well versed in good bacteria without even being aware because we have been eating sourdough bread, pickled cucumbers, tofu and ginger beer to name just a few fermented foods. Even that hot Italian salami you love on your pizza is fermented.
There are numerous animal studies already showing the ability of probiotic supplementation to relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression. However research is more limited in humans .. but there are a number of studies showing promising signs that link probiotic consumption to improved mental health.
The trick to tryptophan.
Serotonin is perhaps the most researched and well known of the brain’s four key mood regulators and is responsible happiness and well being.
Serotonin is made from the amino acid L-tryptophan and because very few foods contain high amounts of tryptophan, it is one of the first nutrients that is depleted if you start dieting. Studies show that serotonin levels can drop too low within seven hours of tryptophan depletion, and when our serotonin levels drop, so do our feelings of self-esteem, regardless of our actual circumstances or accomplishments.
These depressed feelings can easily be the result of not eating the protein foods that keep serotonin levels high which may well be one of the reasons it is difficult to stick to diets in the long run. To help combat depression we can try altering our diet to include foods that are rich in tryptophan
Foods that boost serotonin include:
- Cheese. Cheese is another great source of tryptophan.
- Nuts and seeds.
Beware: Diet is not a replacement for traditional treatments
You should never replace therapy that is recommended by a physician with a diet.
It is important to understand that diet can be an important factor to contribute to mood and well being, but it does not mean that you should switch from medication to the Mediterranean diet.
It is important to understand the diet alone is not the answer…yet… but the signs are promising. Maybe one day soon your psychiatrist will be referring you to a dietician as part of your treatment regime… and as the public’s attitude toward food change … people will come to realise that food has a profound affect on your brain function and overall wellbeing.
Oh, and it tastes sensational.
If you or someone you care for are currently receiving treatment for a mental health disorder and are interested in changing your diet because you you wish to explore the benefits that eating well has for mental health, have a chat with your doctors.
The Melbourne Medibrain Centre takes a whole of body and mind approach to mental health, and diet is a significantly important consideration when recommending suitable treatments for our patients. If you would like to find out more visit us at medibrain.com.au