FOOD FOR THOUGHT
CANADIAN LIVING DECEMBER 2018 Some foods are especially rich in mood-boosting nutrients that can help support brain function, contribute to a stable mood and set you on the right path for overall good health. TEXT STACEY STEIN
Nutrient-rich foods that’ll help boost your mood
The promise of a quick pick-me-up by indulging in our favourite dessert is hard to resist when we’re feeling down.
But ignoring the siren call of sweets is exactly what you should be doing when you’re feeling that way, say experts. Instead, opt for a moodelevating bowl of blueberries or a handful of walnuts, both packed with nutrients that help promote mental well-being.
“The brain needs 50 different nutrients to function,” says Christina Seely, a clinical dietitian at the Parkwood Institute for Mental Health Care in London, Ont. “A deficiency in any nutrient can impact brain function and mental health.” Considering that studies report that diet can reduce the prevalence of depression by up to 40 percent, it’s worth fuelling our bodies properly to optimize our brains while keeping stress, anxiety and depression at bay. Here’s a look at some key mood-enhancing nutrients and how to incorporate them into your diet.
According to Vancouver-based registered dietitian Desiree Nielsen, evidence suggests that a diet low in magnesium is associated with increased anxious behaviour. “Magnesium helps relax the muscles, including blood vessels, helping lower blood pressure, which naturally improves blood flow to the brain,” says Nielsen, adding that many people tend to be deficient in this mineral. Magnesium also stimulates gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors (GABA is a neurotransmitter that eases anxiety and nervousness).
Magnesium is found in legumes, nuts, seeds and dairy products. One of Nielsen’s favourite sources is pumpkin seeds; a quarter cup comes close to meeting a woman’s needs for the day. Other magnesium-rich foods include spinach, quinoa, black beans and chickpeas. Taking a supplement may seem like an easy way to get this mineral, but Nielsen recommends whole foods instead. “When you eat something in its whole-food context, you get more out of it; for example, pumpkin seeds also have essential fats and other minerals like zinc, which is important for nerve signalling in the brain,” she says.
Population studies reveal that lower vitamin D levels are present in people with mental health conditions, such as depression, schizophrenia and cognitive decline, says Seely. Researchers are exploring a possible link, she says: “Suicide rates peak in early spring, when vitamin D levels are at their lowest, unless you live near the equator.” The average daily diet provides about 200 international units (IU) of vitamin D, but we need 1,000 IU to maintain optimal levels. “There are higher rates of seasonal affective disorder in northern-latitude countries,” says Seely; she believes that this may indicate how a lack of vitamin D contributes to depression. Because we can’t manufacture enough vitamin D from the sun year-round and there’s a limited supply in food (including eggs, some dairy products, salmon, cod, sardines and mackerel), Seely recommends taking a supplement with 1,000 IU.
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B vitamins, especially B6, B12 and folate, are critical for the health of the nervous system, and any deficiencies may impact mental well-being, says Nielsen.
Vitamin B6, in particular, is required for the production of GABA, which has been shown to play a prominent role in the brain’s ability to control stress, a key factor when it comes to susceptibility for mood disorders. Meanwhile, studies have found low levels of vitamin B12 and folate in depressive patients. Vitamin B12 is found only in animal foods or fortified plant-based alternatives.
Nielsen cautions against solely relying on supplements for your daily dose. “Studies on supplementing B vitamins have shown mixed results,” she says. Instead, look to foods such as beans, legumes (such as chickpeas) and leafy greens for your fix of B6 and folate.