Diet Plays a Crucial Role in Mental Health

Our bodies are our homes, where we spend our entire lives. They are alive, organic—our cells and organs ever growing and replenishing themselves. Vitally important for our health and well being are our brains, which are “on” 24/7. Our brains oversee and orchestrate all our thoughts, moods, movements, sensations, as well as all the “behind the scenes” daily operations like sleep, digestion, hormone balancing, breathing, circulation, etc.

While our brains, by weight, are about 2% of us, they are the hungriest part, consuming more than 20% of our dietary intake. Our brains are both biochemical, and bioelectric. They are complex, and a healthy diet rich in a variety of plant-based foods is imperative for optimum functioning.

Current stats show that mental health issues will impact 1 in 4 Americans, and 1 in 5 Canadians in their lifetime. The importance of nutrition in the prevention and management of mental illnesses has lead to a new subset of medicine, “nutritional psychiatry.”

“While we don’t want to send the message to patients that all they have to do is change their diet and their severe depression will be cured, I can say that I have absolutely seen dietary changes work to improve outcomes for a lot of patients, and there are a lot of reports of that,” says Dr. Drew Ramsey, author, and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at New York’s Columbia University.

In his book, The Happiness Diet: A Nutritional Prescription for a Sharp Brain, Balanced Mood, and Lean Energized Body, Dr. Ramsey talks about the importance of diet when treating mental illness. “If someone has a severe mental illness, it is very important to talk to them about diet. For example, if a patient has certain nutritional deficiencies, it will be difficult for any medications to help until such deficiencies are treated.”

7 Plant-based Foods to Improve Brain Health

  1. Avocado – an excellent source of monounsaturated fats, omega 3, and omega 6 fatty acids, which help increase blood flow to the brain. They are an excellent source of vitamin E, potassium, and vitamin K, all which help protect the brain from strokes and free radicals.
  2. Beans – and legumes are good sources of complex carbohydrates and fiber, which release energy slowly into the blood stream, sustaining energy for the brain without the damaging effects of blood sugar spikes. They are also a good source of folate, and omega fatty acids.
  3. Berries –  are well-known super foods, loaded with fiber, natural sugars, and antioxidants. The bioflavonoids that give berries their vibrant colors are the same compounds that improve nerve cell communications, learning, memory, reasoning, numeracy and literacy, reasoning and decision-making. Blueberries, blackberries, acai berries and goji berries are excellent choices.
  4.  Chai Seeds – Chia (meaning “strength”) seeds are an excellent source of omega 3 fatty acids and both soluble and insoluble forms of fiber, important when controlling blood sugar levels and the brain. They are anti-inflammatory, full of antioxidants, and a good source of plant-based protein.
  5.  Chocolate – Many people’s favorite super food, dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants and flavones, which improve blood vessel function, cognitive function, and memory. Chocolate stimulates production of the “feel good” endorphins, and is a good source of tryptophan, a precursor to serotonin, the neurotransmitter linked to feelings of happiness.
  6. Nuts – Walnuts and almonds are excellent sources of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids, vitamin B6 and vitamin E, all important nutrients for cardiovascular and brain health. Vitamin E has been shown to help prevent many forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s.
  7. Pumpkin and Sunflower Seeds –  are excellent sources of protein, omega fatty acids, B vitamins, and tryptophan. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, which improves mood and reduces depression.


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