By Laura LaChance, M.D. and Drew Ramsey, M.D.
Eating well has long been associated with battling illnesses such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer. Can food choices also have an impact on brain health and mental illness? New science is demonstrating that the largest factor in your control to impact and improve your brain health is at the end of your fork.
Depression and other mental disorders are a leading cause of disability in the world today. For this reason, there has been a growing interest in prevention and research on how lifestyle factors, like diet, can affect brain disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and illnesses of cognitive decline like dementia.
In our recent review article “Food, Mood, and the Brain: Implications for the Modern Clinician” in the March/April 2015 issue of Missouri Medicine: The Journal of the Missouri State Medical Association, we consider the recent evidence linking dietary pattern to brain-based illnesses, and provide an overview of the mechanisms that underlie the association between brain health and diet.
Recent research has improved our understanding of how dietary patterns like the Mediterranean diet may prevent mental illness. Some studies show greater than 40% reduction in the risk of depression for those who eat more nutrient-dense, whole foods. We also know that people who eat diets that are high in processed foods, also known as the “Western diet,” have a significantly higher chance of developing disorders like depression, cognitive impairment, and ADHD.
Eating for brain health also makes intuitive sense. Compared to other organs, the brain is the largest consumer of calories and nutrients, such as omega-3 fats. This is because the brain is a very metabolically active organ and requires certain nutrients to function optimally. Surprisingly, considering diet in relation to brain health is a relatively new concept for many health professionals.
There are several ways food choice relates to brain and mental health. First, deficiencies in certain nutrients, like folate, vitamin B12, and zinc, can cause symptoms of depression or dementia. Research support other key nutrients that play an important role in the maintenance of brain health including the omega-3 fatty acids, especially those that are found in fish and seafood; B-vitamins needed for the production of key brain molecules such as serotonin and myelin; and an emerging perspective that considers the effect of diet on the microbiome, the collection of bacteria that inhabit our gut. Finally, several nutrients in our diet like zinc, magnesium and certain plant-based antioxidants can directly impact the production of an important chemical that promotes the health of neurons, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF.)
While it’s true that there is compelling research support for consuming individual nutrients, it is key to remember that eating a diet based on nutrient-dense, whole foods has a much larger impact on brain health than taking in any single nutrient or supplement in isolation. This shift in thinking is paralleled by the current research in nutritional psychiatry. What’s more, since a healthy mind is supported by a healthy body, eating a diet of nutrient-dense foods and avoiding highly processed foods benefits our overall well-being and is a key, foundational element to good self-care.
There are a number of effective evidence-based treatments for mental disorders, though few that possibly prevent mental illness. Notably, all brain health interventions can be safely combined with dietary change. Another feature of improving diet quality is that this intervention both lacks side effects and, done properly, is absolutely delicious.
What foods should you consider to increase your intake of “brain foods”? Here are some of our top recommendations:
Published May 1, 2015.
Laura LaChance, MD is a fourth-year psychiatry resident at the University of Toronto. She is part of the clinician scientist stream of her residency program and is currently one of the chief residents.
Drew Ramsey, MD is assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, NY, and author of The Happiness Diet and 50 Shades of Kale. Learn more at DrewRamseyMD.com.
Editor's note: This article is part of a special series brought to you by Missouri Medicine, the Journal of the Missouri State Medical Association (MSMA). MedHelp, Missouri Medicine, and MSMA are collaborating to educate and empower health consumers by making the latest scientific studies and medical research available to the public. Learn more about MSMA and see more from Missouri Medicine.
This is a summary of the article "Food, Mood, and Brain Health: Implications for the Modern Clinician" by Laura Lachance, MD, and Drew Ramsey, MD, which was originally published in the in the March/April 2015 issue of Missouri Medicine. The full article is available here.
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