Other then “stress eating”, we don’t often associate our lifestyle choices like diet and exercise with our mental health. While genetic factors and the stress of daily life certainly affect our mental health, what we eat and our level of physical activity (or lack thereof) have a direct impact on our brain function and mood.
Our brains are always on, and require fuel to function properly. Just as an athlete fuels their body for performance, we must fuel our brains to perform properly and help contribute to our mental health.
Our brains are largely made up of fat, however, our bodies cannot produce the essential fatty acids needed for brain function so we must get them from food. Omega 3 fatty acids offer neuroprotective properties that have been shown to have beneficial effects on mood. Cold-water oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines are excellent sources of Omega 3s. Additional vegetarian sources of Omega 3s include flaxseed, chia, seaweed, and walnuts.
Glucose is the primary source of energy for the brain and 100% of the carbohydrates we eat are converted to glucose. Complex carbohydrates like the ones found in whole grains are more slowly digested then simple carbohydrates (like soda) which provide steady fuel for our brains without spikes.
After carbohydrates protein is the most abundant substance in the body. Like fat, our bodies need but cannot produce some of the building blocks of protein called essential amino acids. One of these essential amino acids Tryptophan (yes the same one linked to your Thanksgiving turkey) plays a key role in producing serotonin a neurotransmitter that regulates mood. Turkey is not the only good source of Tryptophan; eggs, soy, nuts, salmon, and cheese are excellent food sources.
Additionally, the majority of serotonin production happens in our guts so gut health has a direct impact on brain health. In simple terms, good gut health refers to diversity and quantity of the good bacteria that live in our guts. Improve your gut health by increasing probiotics in your diet. These are found in yogurt and fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut.
Studies have shown that even mild dehydration can lead to altered mood and decreased energy levels. Women appear to be more susceptible to the effects of dehydration then men. Dehydration does not only occur after exercise; extreme heat or cold can lead to rapid dehydration. Even normal respiratory function can cause slight dehydration. Drinking water throughout the day will ensure you do not suffer the effects of dehydration.
We know that exercise is just as important as diet when it comes to physical health, but did you know that exercise plays a key role in mental health. Aerobic exercise like walking and running has been proven to improve mood, reduce stress, anxiety and depression. If making time to exercise just adds to your stress level don’t worry because as little as 30 minutes of exercise 3 times a week can have can have a beneficially impact on your mental health. Start your morning off with a quick workout; the lack of sleep won’t be missed with your improved mood. Or take a brisk walk at lunch to give you energy and spirit to finish the workday.
Mental health is a key component to our overall well-being. We might not be able to control all of the factors that cause stress and anxiety but taking time to nourish our brains might help minimize the effects.
Just some food for thought…