"Let thy food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food".
Our mental health is often tied together with our emotional states, or biochemical make-up, but what we eat – or don’t eat – plays a critical role in influencing how we feel.
Many Canadians have inadequate intakes of key nutrients that are vital for our brains (1).
The simplest way to meet our nutrient targets throughout the day is to get them through food!
So… let’s dive in to the top foods to incorporate into your diet for a healthy, thriving mind.
**Disclaimer: One should never simply assume a nutrient deficiency.
Many references are provided in this article to encourage you to further research the value of whole foods and nutrients to utilize at your own discretion.
If you are curious, request a blood panel from your M.D., and of course, always consult with your doctor before making any drastic changes to your diet.
You may have heard a little something about antioxidants. Oxidative stress is something that naturally occurs in the body, however, there are many lifestyle factors that compound this biological stress- such as a poor diet, smoking, lack of sleep, and the many toxins present in our environment.
When we have excess oxidative stress (presence of free-radicals) in the body, this gives rise to inflammation (2). When this inflammatory state is continuously occurring, it becomes systemic, exacerbating mental health conditions such as depression (3).
Anti-oxidants are like the super heroes protecting the body against this kind of damage. They neutralize free-radicals and stop the inflammatory response before it even happens.
Berries are great for antioxidant value, however, blueberries rank far superior for their dose of antioxidants per serving (4).
Plus, they are a food source that can be found wild for foraging in the Rockies, and grown locally for the best nutritional bang for your buck!
2) Pumpkin Seeds
Pumpkin seeds are an excellent source of healthy fats and minerals, but on top of that, these little guys have some key amino acids up their sleeves.
Pepitas are some of your highest sources of phenylalanine – (5) a precursor to dopamine – one of our “feel-good” neurotransmitters.
They also are a high source of tryptophan – an amino acid that plays an essential role in sleep regulation, and is a precursor to serotonin, a key component of mood regulation. When serotonin is low, we are more susceptible to a decrease in mood (6), so it is important that we give our body the building blocks necessary to produce it.
They make a great addition to your backcountry trail mix recipes, or as an addition to muffins, salads or yogurt toppings.
3) Wild, Fatty Fish
This includes salmon, herring, mackerel, tuna and halibut.
Omega-3 has a great reputation in the world of brain health, but there are actually three types of Omega-3: ALA, EPA & DHA.
All of these fatty acids have their benefits, but the very bio-available DHA is a brainy superstar.
Much of our brain is actually made up of DHA, and it actually helps your brain’s neurons to become more flexible and fluid. This is helping your brain cells to better communicate with each other, leading to a boost in memory and focus, while protecting against brain degeneration (7).
Wild fish has been shown to have a higher profile of Omega-3 to Omega-6 than farmed fish, as well as lesser levels of fat-soluble contaminants (8), so if possible, look for wild-caught seafood, or get the satisfaction of catching your own food while getting outside, and take a trip to the Coast to do some fishing!
4) Broccoli & Broccoli Sprouts
Allow me to tell you of the magic of Sulforaphane! This compound functions as an anti-oxidant, is highly anti-inflammatory, and is neuro-protective. This is because it directly regulates specific genes that govern degeneration of neurons! (9) How cool is that? Sulforaphane literally talks to our DNA and convinces it to preserve our precious neural network.
Studies on Sulforaphane are on-going, but so far, trials using SF treatment in mice have shown to produce anti-depressant and anti-anxiety effects (10). Current studies are starting to translate this to human populations as well, holding much hope for it’s therapeutic future.
5) Dark Chocolate
Oh yes. Don’t think for a second that I’m having a green smoothie for dessert.
Chocolate is a beautiful thing, and aside from the obvious feelings of pleasure that come with it’s indulgence, there is a key nutrient hidden inside that plays a role in stress.
Cocoa is a very rich source of Magnesium.
Ready for some Grade 12 biology nostalgia? Calcium, Magnesium and Potassium work together within our muscles to create movement, and Magnesium is responsible for the “relax” mechanism. As it turns out, Magnesium also has similar sedative effects on our hormones, by antagonizing various stress responses, including the hormonal release of Cortisol (12) – the infamous stress hormone.
This is a wonderful protective mechanism, but it also means that the more stressed we are, the more Magnesium we are losing out on.
Magnesium is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies (13). Deficiency can produce symptoms of fatigue,weakness muscle, cramps, headaches, insomnia and anxiety (14 , 15). Obviously, these are not pleasant to experience, and when they appear at the wrong time, they can compound the stress our bodies and brains are already experiencing.
Do you see the vicious cycle? If this makes you feel as stressed as I do, let’s just take one for the team have a few squares of good quality chocolate already.
6) Free-Range Egg Yolks
I remember back in the day when raw egg whites were the hype. Egg yolks became the underdog, but I’m all about tales of redemption.
There is a plethora of nutrients to spotlight in egg yolks – but one completely underrated nutrient to speak on is Vitamin D3.
I could write an entire post on Vitamin D alone, but it has a particularly interesting trick of activating our genes that regulate the immune system (ahem – inflammation), and neurotransmitter release (16) (remember dopamine and serotonin?).
This role has inspired researchers correlate Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) with vitamin D deficiency. Our skin synthesizes this vitamin from sunlight, so when light exposure drops in the Winter, we also tend see a drop in blood serum levels of Vitamin D (17). Having such an influence on inflammation and neurotransmitters, it could make sense that a lack of Vitamin D might contribute to symptoms of SAD.
Free-range eggs offer a 3-4 fold increase of Vitamin D levels than their conventional counterparts (18), and their chickens are probably happier too.
Psst – ever tried dehydrating your own eggs? I had always loathed the difficulty of bringing eggs camping until this genius idea came along.
Did you know that avocado toast has a “political symbolism” section on Wikipedia?
What a time to be alive.
All jokes aside – your $3.00 side of guacamole is probably a good idea.
Avocados are made up of healthy fats, including Omega 3’s, and to put some icing on the cake, they also contain a synergistic element that actually increases your body’s ability to uptake these fats (19). I’m talking about Vitamin E.
Vitamin E protects the loss of molecules in the brain that carry nutrients like DHA across the blood-brain barrier, and without it, effiency of this transport decreases significantly (20).
Vitamin E is widely used in cosmetics and food products as a natural preservative (labelled as tocopherol), and this is because it is also a strong antioxidant! It protects our precious brain cells from damage, which helps with our cognition.
In fact, studies have shown a consistent link between poor memory performance and low Vitamin E serum levels (21), and there is lots of speculation around the use of Vitamin E in Alzheimer’s disease (22).
Whole avocados are incredibly easy to pack for the backcountry – they come in their own durable packaging! So take your avo toast to the next level – you millennial, you.
9) Fermented Foods
Saurkraut, Kimchi, Miso, Tempeh, Mead, Kefir, Kombucha… the list goes on!
Did you know that we actually have a large nerve in our body that directly links our guts to our brain? (GASP). Did you know that the bacteria inside that gut is responsible for converting some of our key vitamins into the versions that our bodies can use?
Did you know that one of those vitamins is Vitamin B12? (23)
This glorious nutrient is only needed in small amounts, but it is powerful enough help our bodies fight off fatigue, and helps us produce more energy (24). When we are energized, we may notice that we are more prone to positive emotion, stability, and productivity. Vitamin B12 is also an important protector for our precious neurons (25). So important, in fact, that studies have linked low levels of B12 activity in the brain to psychological disorders such as autism and schizophrenia (26), which is no small statement.
So what does this have to do with saurkraut? Well, the fermentation process to make fermented foods actually captures and grows probiotics that we can consume and introduce to the locals in our gut. These gut bugs then continue to breed and gift us with so many continual benefits!
10) Greens, Greens, Greens.
Spinach. Chard. Kale. Bok Choy. Arugula. Algae! (Bet you didn’t see that one coming).
But you’ve probably heard some anecdote in your lifetime about eating your greens.
Dark leafy greens, my friends. These powerhouses harbour some serious brain food, especially important B-Vitamins, such as Vitamin B6.
Vitamin B6 is a regulatory for our hormones (27), and has a particular influence on how much melatonin we produce. Melatonin is famous for it’s role in regulating our sleep cycle, which has an enormous impact on our moods (28). Most of us have experienced this first-hand.
Furthermore, if sleep problems become chronic, it is possible that we become more susceptible to developing psychiatric disorders such as anxiety and depression (29), or further worsening conditions that may already be present (30).
**BONUS** If you want to walk on the wild side, incorporating algae such as Chlorella or Nori in your diet will give you an amazing boost of nutrients. They contain DHA, chlorophyll, and a bio-available version of B12 (31) – which can be very difficult to obtain through plant sources.