Many of us who are looking to stay or get into better shape start to evaluate one or two areas of our lives: what we do to move and what we put into our body. If weight loss is your goal, you increase your cardio and weight lifting while decreasing your caloric intake. When you want to bulk up and gain more muscle, you start lifting even heavier weights and increase your daily protein consumption. While all of this takes care of your physical health, what about mental health? Whether your muscles are in use or not, our brains never turn off. This means our brains require constant fuel, and the right kind at that!
Think of your brain as an automobile. When you utilize premium fuel (such as high quality foods rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants), you get a good output. The car will run properly and get you to your destination without problems. If you fill up your “tank” with low grade fuel, such as highly processed or refined foods, you may have engine troubles in your future. Diets high in refined sugars can be harmful to the brain and can worsen the body’s regulation of insulin, promote inflammation, and increase oxidative stress (1).
So, if the old saying is true, “You are what you eat,” how does food impact your body AND mind? Below are some of my findings on certain vitamins and whole foods to consume to keep a good physique – in the mirror as well as your brain.
Folate (Folic Acid, Vitamin B9): Folate, or folic acid, is the synthetic form of Vitamin B9 and is critically important for pregnant women. Folic acid helps prevent neural tube defects such as spina bifida and anencephaly (2, 3). Pregnant or not, folic acid indirectly facilitates the synthesis of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine – three neurotransmitters involved in the mood regulation process (4). It is also essential for making normal red blood cells as well as the production, repair, and functioning of DNA (3). To find your healthy dose of this vitamin, fill your grocery cart with leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale, fruits, nuts, beans, and whole grains (2).
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Our brains are made up largely of fat and our bodies cannot produce essential fatty acids on their own, therefore we need to rely on our daily intake of omega-3s. Much like folic acid, omega-3s have a significant impact on the production of dopamine and serotonin (4). About 95% of your serotonin is produced in your gastrointestinal tract which is lined with a hundred million nerve cells, so it’s no surprise your digestive system doesn’t just help to break down what you eat, but also guides your emotions (1). To steer your emotions healthfully, add salmon, sardines, olive oil, flax (or flaxseed oil), and walnuts to your plate.
Probiotics: Fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, and pickled vegetables contain probiotics (healthy bacteria) which have been shown in studies to reduce anxiety and stress hormones (4). A new study out of the Leiden Institute of Brain and Cognition at Leiden University in the Netherlands examined the effects of probiotic supplementation. Half of the study participants consumed a probiotic supplement nightly while the other half unknowingly ingested a placebo. Those who took the probiotic reported improvement in mood, reacted less to sadness, and had fewer depressive thoughts following bouts of sadness (5).
General Diet: There have been multiple studies that have compared “traditional” diets, like the Mediterranean diet and the traditional Japanese diet, to a typical “Western” (or U.S.) diet and have shown that the risk of depression is 25% to 35% lower in those who eat a traditional diet (1). Foods included in the Mediterranean diet include broccoli rabe, chickpeas, couscous, eggplant, and hazelnuts (6). The Japanese diet consists of rice, buckwheat noodles, pumpkin, shiitake mushrooms, tofu, mandarin oranges, pears, and persimmons (7).
Taking in more of these key vitamins and foods may sound like a chore. However, your body and mind can both benefit from simply fueling your body with the right sources.
Janae Shillito, Project Coordinator, The Kim Foundation
Janae Shillito is the newest edition to The Kim Foundation and serves as Project Coordinator. She holds two science degrees with her alma maters including the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Janae’s love of volunteering and helping those without a voice created a strong desire to become a part of the non-profit world. She enjoys instructing kickboxing classes, reading a good book, and being outside with her husband, Cory, and Rottweiler, Hank.