Ingredients for a healthy mind
On World Mental Health Day, give your brain a boost with these 9 smart foods
You need the right food to keep your brain healthy. A study published in The Lancet in July concluded that one in three cases of dementia could be prevented if more people looked after their brain health and strengthened the brain’s network by improving their diet, not smoking, doing exercise, keeping a healthy weight and treating high blood pressure and diabetes.
Without the right nutrition, the brain cannot produce neurotransmitters or neurochemicals like serotonin or dopamine that are responsible for mood, social behaviour, appetite, memory and even sexual desire, say Luke Coutinho, doctor of alternative medicine and founder of the health start-up Pure Nutrition. “The right foods can boost numerous aspects of mental health, including memory, concentration, intelligence, cognitive thinking, and help in the prevention of diseases like depression, Alzheimer’s, etc," he says.
If your lifestyle includes a lot of processed food, that can lead to toxic accumulation, increased inflammation and oxidative stress, ultimately leading to brain deterioration. “People who eat less balanced diets and include a lot of processed foods high in sugar, caffeine and alcohol in their diets have a higher chance of undergoing mental health problems like depression, and obsessive compulsive disorders," says Ushakiran Sisodia, head of department, diet and nutrition, Nanavati Super Speciality Hospital, Mumbai.
The reason is simple. Your brain is working, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, without rest. That needs a lot of energy. The brain realizes this, which is why it’s intricately connected to your stomach, communicating every moment through the vagus nerve, one of the largest nerve systems in the body.
Ritika Samaddar, regional director and chief clinical nutritionist, Max Healthcare, Delhi, says what you eat has a direct effect on your mood. “The most important nutrients the brain needs are omega 3, zinc, B vitamins, especially B12 and B9, choline, zeutin, probiotics, magnesium, antioxidants, amino acids, vitamin D and iron," she says.
Omega 3 fatty acids help the brain build proper neural connections and create barriers that protect the nerves, while magnesium, vitamins D, E, C, B complex, iron and zinc are needed to aid in brain function and health, adds Priyanka Rohatgi, head of department, nutrition and dietetics, Apollo Hospitals, Bengaluru. “High-quality foods that contain a lot of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants nourish the brain, protecting it from oxidative stress," she explains, adding that a balanced diet of fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, complex carbohydrates, fibre and healthy fats and protein would be ideal.
So, if you want to give your brain an added boost, make sure these items are on the menu.
Coconut oil comes loaded with medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), a kind of fatty acid which, when oxidized, converts to ketones, a high-powered energy that feeds brain cells, increases blood circulation to the brain and provides all the good cholesterol the brain needs, says Sisodia.
To keep your brain from ageing, add turmeric to your curries. It’s both anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety. “Turmeric acts as a nootropic (smart drug) to enhance brain function, is therapeutic in the supplemental form and protects your brain from premature ageing," says Coutinho. Curcumin, the ingredient found in this wonder spice, fights Alzheimer’s, is anti-inflammatory and kills free radicals.
Berries and cherries
Brain health is dependent on reducing inflammatory foods in your diet, says Shamsah Sonawalla, consultant psychiatrist, Jaslok Hospital and Research Center, Mumbai. That’s why berries and cherries, which are rich in antioxidants and help prevent free radicals (unstable molecules) from damaging the body, also protect you from developing neuropsychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety and Alzheimer’s. “In addition, they contain flavonoids that enhance mood, help in hormonal balance and reduce cortisol, the stress hormone," she adds. In season, have a cupful of berries, grapes (for the average Indian diet, grapes, gooseberries) or cherries every day to keep your brain fit.
These brain-shaped nuts are one of the best sources of omega 3 fatty acids for vegetarians, says Samaddar. Omega 3 fatty acids are essential to reduce stress, boost concentration and improve mood. “Walnuts also contain a number of neuroprotective compounds like vitamin E, folate, melatonin and antioxidants," says Sisodia. Pack in three-four a day.
A study conducted by researchers from the University of L’Aquila in Italy found that cocoa bean is a rich source of flavanols, a class of natural compounds that has neuroprotective effects and enhances cognitive performance. The study, published in Frontiers In Nutrition in May, says eating a few pieces of dark chocolate daily improves attention, processing speed, working memory and verbal fluency in elderly individuals. “Dark chocolate creates hormones that elevate the mood and reduce stress in addition to containing antioxidants," agrees Dr Sonawalla.
Eggs are an ideal breakfast choice for people struggling with depression, says Coutinho. “The yolk contains lecithin that breaks up cholesterol into small pieces, easily absorbed by the body," he says. The choline in egg is important to maintain memory and communication signals. Eggs are loaded with lutein, vitamin D, vitamin B complex, zinc and omega 3, all essential for brain functioning.
Green leafy vegetables
Vegetables like spinach, celery, coriander, cabbage and amaranth leaves are loaded with phytonutrients, fibre, vitamin K, magnesium, folate and lutein—all of which help ward off depression and combat cognitive ageing. “Leafy veggies also attack monoamine oxidase, an enzyme responsible for destroying happiness-creating neurotransmitters and dopamine," says Coutinho.
Fermented foods like yogurt, probiotic milk and kimchi are a rich source of probiotics, which help reduce stress hormones and anxiety, says Samaddar. “Probiotic foods maintain optimal gut flora, which is essential for good mental health," she explains. Yogurt also helps you retain vitamin B-12 (an essential nutrient for nerve health), in your system.
Just taking a bite of a banana has the power to elevate your mood—it has high levels of tryptophan that convert to serotonin, the hormone responsible for making you feel good, says Coutinho. “This fruit is loaded with B-complex vitamins, especially B6, that soothes the nervous system," he says. In addition, it has magnesium, another essential for good brain functioning, adds Samaddar.