Information comes belting at us from across the world and it’s impossible to keep up, to know everything you feel you should. Our diet has changed, too – becoming more refined and sugary and more laden with meat, dairy, eggs, fat and alcohol.
Does it matter? It does and is partly why a survey of 37,000 people for Optimum Nutrition UK, found that:
- 82 per cent of people in the UK said they become impatient quickly;
- 80 per cent reported low energy levels;
- 67 per cent felt they have too much to do;
- and 64 per cent became anxious or tense easily.
In 2013, GPs wrote a staggering million prescriptions for antidepressants a week in England, almost double the amount ten years previously (The Health Survey for England). Other people turn to yoga, meditation, self-help books and counsellors but very few who are mentally stressed ever think of improving their diet. Truth is, our brains can’t function properly without a good diet, let alone imbue us with the right mood.
MIND, the mental health charity, carried out a Food and Mood project with 200 people and found that 88 per cent reported that changing their diet improved their mental health significantly: 26 per cent said they had big reductions in mood swings, 26 per cent in panic attacks and anxiety and 24 per cent in depression. They also found that cutting down on food “stressors” and increasing “supporters” helped their mood.
The main stressors included saturated animal fats, which are high in both meat and dairy sugar, milk chocolate, caffeine and alcohol. Supporters included water, vegetables, fruit and omega-3-rich foods. Eating regularly and not skipping breakfast were also highlighted as ways to boost mental health.
Essential brain foods
The five brain boosting food groups include:
- Essential amino acids from the protein in foods such as nuts, seeds, peas, beans, lentils, bananas, avocados, wholegrains.
- Glucose (from complex carbs such as brown rice, brown bread and wholegrains).
- Essential fatty acids (omega 3 and 6) from flaxseed oil, hemp seed oil, evening primrose oil, broccoli, walnuts amongst others.
- Phospholipids, which the body manufactures but also from soya lecithin.
- Vitamins, minerals and trace elements mainly in fresh fruit and vegetables but also nuts, seeds, wholegrains and pulses.
Feeding the brain:
Every day we have about 6,000 thoughts (most repeats!) and each one is an electrical ripple across your brain using nerve cells or neurones. We have a staggering 100 billon nerve cells, each one connecting to thousands of others. Our brains are phenomenally brilliant and deserve a bit of nutritional support!
Nerves talk to each other via a gap called a synapse and neurotransmitters that send messages are released into that gap – the sending station on one nerve cell transmitting to a receptor on another. Both are made up of essential fatty acids – phospholipids and amino acids – and are constantly renewed. When the neurotransmitter fits into the receptor its message is converted into an electrical signal which runs down the nerve cell to the next one. The neurotransmitter (or message) is made of amino acids from protein.
On a high:
Important neurotransmitters include serotonin, which makes us happy and is made from the amino acid tryptophan. Adrenaline and dopamine keep us motivated and alert, help us deal with stress and give us that ‘on top of the world’ feeling. They are made from another amino acid, phenylalanine.
Top mood foods for increasing tryptophan and phenyalanine are bananas, oats, avocados, mung beans, wholegrains, asparagus, sunflower seeds, unsalted mixed nuts, pineapple, tofu, edamame (whole soya beans) and spinach.
To convert amino acids into these neurotransmitters requires a cocktail of vitamins and minerals – plentiful in a vegan wholefood diet. For example, turning tryptophan into serotonin requires vitamins C and B6, folic acid, biotin and zinc. A common form of depression comes from inadequate serotonin levels, which is why you need a good diet to keep you smiling.
To make dopamine and adrenaline you need everything from magnesium and zinc to iron and copper as well as vitamin B12 – so B12 fortified foods such as soya milk and breakfast cereals, or a B12 supplement, are essential to everyone, not just vegans.
Failure to make enough neurotransmitters can result in depression, apathy, lack of motivation, inability to relax, poor memory and poor concentration.
The brain’s preferred fuel is glucose and on a regular day will consume 40 per cent of your glucose. Getting enough glucose isn’t the problem, it’s that our supply tends to be erratic and from the wrong sources – refined carbohydrates instead of complex carbohydrates. This irregularity may cause irritability, anxiety, tiredness, insomnia, excess night sweating, low concentration and poor memory, excess thirst, depression and crying spells, digestive problems and even blurred vision. Any of these sound familiar?
Children who regularly eat refined carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice, white pizza bases, sugar, jam, fizzy drinks, milk chocolate and so on, tend to have considerably lower IQs than those who eat complex carbohydrates such as brown bread, brown rice, wholegrains, wholewheat pasta, fruit and veg.
For a steady release of glucose always eat a good breakfast such as muesli or porridge with berries and banana, flax seeds and cinnamon sprinkled over; or mushrooms and grilled tomatoes with mixed herbs on brown bread. Throughout the day include complex carbs such as peas, beans, lentils and other pulses, wholegrains, seeds and nuts. For snacks, choose fresh fruits with a few unsalted nuts or seeds.
Sixty per cent of your brain is fat, which is constantly being used and then replenished by what you eat. The right fats for the job are the essential fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6. They’re called ‘essential’ because your body can’t make them and so it’s essential you eat them. A lack can result in depression, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, fatigue and loss of memory. They are also needed to optimise intelligence. In fact research shows that the type of fats we eat daily have a profound effect on how we think and feel.
Every nerve cell in the brain is contained in a membrane (myelin sheath) which is 75 per cent composed of fat. Good fats also regulate the release and performance of neurotransmitters.
Animal saturated fats and trans fats actually push the good fats out of the cell membrane so again it’s omega-3 and 6 that’s needed at an optimum ratio of 1:4 – four times as much omega-6 as omega-3 oils. Because of modern diets, many of us eat ten-times more omega-6 than 3 so to correct the imbalance include plenty of omega-3-rich foods in your diet – and the best source is flaxseed (linseed).
Try sprinkling ground flaxseeds on your breakfast cereal (buy them ready ground because if they are not the oil won’t be absorbed). Or use flaxseed oil on your food but don’t cook with it as heat destroys omega-3. Use it for salad dressings or poured into soups, casseroles and pasta dishes or over vegetables once cooked – about a teaspoonful daily is all that’s needed. Seeds and oils can both be bought from health food stores.
Hemp seeds and hemp oil can be used similarly as can cold-pressed rape seed (canola) oil. Other sources include dark green leafy vegetables such as broccoli as well as walnuts and walnut oil, soya beans and soya oil and wheat germ.
Omega-6 fats are found in seeds and their oils such as sunflower, sesame, corn, grapeseed, hemp and rape, pecans, pistachios and walnuts, rice bran and soya beans.
The myelin sheath also needs phospholipids, which also make acetylcholine – the brain’s memory neurotransmitter. This improves your mood and mental performance and protects against Alzheimer’s and age-related memory decline.
On a good, wholefood, vegan diet your body will make all the phospholipids it needs, although you can get extra from soya beans, peanuts and other nuts. Soya lecithin is an excellent source and can be bought as capsules or as granules – 1 tbsp daily sprinkled on cereal.
Vitamins and minerals:
As Patrick Holford says in his book, New Optimum Nutrition for the Mind, in every great film there are hundreds of people working behind the scenes who support the main players. The same is true of the brain when turning glucose into energy; amino acids into neurotransmitters, omega 3 and 6 into brain friendly fats; building phospholipids and the brain and nervous system.
All B vitamins are vital to the brain and are needed daily, except B12 which is stored. Vitamin B1 helps turn glucose into energy and so a low supply means mental and physical tiredness. Vitamin B3 is effective in treating acute schizophrenia, in improving memory and in cutting the risk of dementia. B5 is needed to cope with stress and again boosts memory. B6, B9 folic acid and B12 control methylation in the body – a process vital in the formation of neurotransmitters. It’s been known for decades that poor mental health is often associated with low folic acid and B12.
Good sources of B vitamins include Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, peanuts, dark green leafy veg, wholegrains, broadbeans, beansprouts, pulses, bananas, avocados, mushrooms, soya. Folic acid is rich in spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, asparagus, pulses and berries; B12 is in fortified B12 products such as breakfast cereals and soya milk, or in daily supplements.
Vitamin C helps balance neurotransmitters and low intake can result in depression. Mentally ill people often need more of this vitamin, which is plentiful in most fresh fruits and green veg, as well as pulses.
The minerals calcium and magnesium are essential for nerve cells and a lack of either can make you edgy, more nervous, irritable and aggressive. Magnesium has been shown to help children with autism and hyperactivity as well as aiding sleep.
Both minerals are plentiful in wholefood vegan diets – magnesium particularly rich in green leafy veg, nuts and seeds – especially sesame, sunflower, pumpkin seeds. For calcium eat foods such as sesame and other seeds, pulses as tofu, kidney beans, baked beans, lentils, green leafy veg, swede, almonds, Brazil nuts, fortified soya milk, cinnamon, fennel and olives.
Zinc is the most commonly deficient mineral and yet is the most crucial for mental health. Low levels are associated with schizophrenia; depression; anxiety; anorexia; autism; delinquency; hyperactivity and poor memory. School children given 20mg a day versus those on 10mg or a placebo had faster and more accurate memories and better attention spans within three months.
Zinc is in all seeds as well as nuts, pulses and wheat germ.
Bad fats bad brain:
We’ve long recognised that what we eat affects our bodily health. It’s time we realised that it also affects our brain. For example, it is widely accepted that saturated animal fats trigger our bodies to make ‘bad’ (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol which encourages plaques to form in the arteries to your heart. What is less talked about is that the plaques can form in the arteries to the brain and are linked to brain diseases such as stroke and Alzheimer’s. Cholesterol increases the production of beta-amyloid plaques that can lead to Alzheimer’s – and those with high levels have 25 to 50 per cent more chance of developing the disease. Plants – including those thought of as fatty such as avocado and nuts – contain ZERO cholesterol and, compared to dairy products such as hard cheeses, butter, milk chocolate, ice cream and cream and to red and white meats are low in damaging saturated fats.
A varied wholefood vegan diet is perfect for optimizing brain health – containing all the good guys and none of the bad. So next time you hear a junk food meat eater complaining ‘My brain hurts’, you can reply’ ‘Not surprising considering what you do to it!’
Inspiring and delicious vegan recipes: www.veganrecipeclub.org.uk