Expert reveals what to eat for a happy, healthy brain

We all know certain foods can make us happy, but a growing body of research says there are seven key nutrients that can also help us be brain-healthy.

Writing in The Conversation, Jerome Sarris from the University of Melbourne has drawn together the latest research and develop this nutritional hit list for healthy brains.

He says, “Dietary nutrients are critical for brain structure and function, so they have a potentially profound impact on mental health.”

Does this mean food could cure mental illness? Possibly, but not yet. While it’s believed the following nutrients and the foods they’re found in promote healthy brains, resilient to illness, Mr Sarris says studies continue into supplementation.

He also reminds us that diets high in sugary, fatty and processed foods are associated with depression and poor brain health.

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“The best nutritional advice at this point is to cultivate an unprocessed wholefood diet, with judicious prescriptive use of nutrients (if required) based on advice from a qualified health professional,” he says.

The seven brain-loving nutrients are:

  1. Omega-3

Polyunsaturated fats (in particular omega-3 fatty acids) maintain nurone structure and fight inflammation in the body. Taking omega-3 supplements appears beneficial for addressing symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other conditions. Best sources are nuts, seeds and oysters, although the highest amounts exist in oily fish such as sardines, salmon (especially King salmon), anchovies and mackerel.

  1. B vitamins and folate
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B vitamins are involved in cellular and metabolic processes, and have a critical role in the production of a range of brain chemicals. Folate (B9) deficiency has been reported in depressed populations and among people who respond poorly to antidepressants.

Folate is found in in leafy green vegetables, legumes, whole grains, brewer’s yeast and nuts. Unprocessed meats, eggs, cheese, dairy, whole grains and nuts are, in general, richest in B vitamins. If you’re going to take supplements, it’s advisable to take B vitamins together as they have a synergistic effect.

  1. Amino acids

Amino acids are the building blocks of the brain and are needed to create the chemicals that control our moods. Some amino-acid based nurtients have antidepressant qualities. Find them in any source of protein, most notably meats, seafood, eggs, nuts and legumes.

  1. Minerals
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Minerals, especially zinc, magnesium and iron, have important roles in neurological function. Deficiencies in these minerals have been linked to symptoms of depression, immune function and development, and supplementation has been shown to improve symptoms. Add lean meats, oysters, whole grains, pumpkin seeds and nuts, legumes, leafy greens, soy and even organ meats to your diet.

  1. Vitamin D

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble compound that’s important as much for brain development as it is for bone development. There’s little evidence to support the use of vitamin D supplements for preventing depression but maintaining good levels is important for overall health. Aside from sunlight, vitamin D can be found in oily fish, UVB-exposed mushrooms and fortified milk.

  1. Plant-based antioxidants

An increase in oxidative stress and damage to brain cells has been implicated in a range of mental disorders, including depression and dementia. Antioxidant compounds (such as “polyphenols”, which are found in fruits and certain herbs) may “mop up” free radicals that damage cells to provide a natural way to combat excessive oxidation.

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Consuming natural antioxidant compounds through your diet is better than taking supplements of high doses of synthetic vitamin A, C or E, as the oxidative system is finely tuned and excess may actually be harmful.

Fruits and vegetables contain these antioxidant compounds in relative abundance, especially blackberries, blueberries, raspberries and goji berries; grapes; mangoes and mangosteen; onions; garlic; kale; as well as green and black tea; various herbal teas; and coffee.

  1. Microbiotics

Research shows a connection between the bacteria in our guts and brain health, which may affect mental health. A balanced microfloral environment is supported by a diet rich in the foods that nourish beneficial bacteria and reduce harmful microbial species. Beneficial microflora can be supported by eating fermented foods such as tempeh, sauerkraut, kefir and yoghurt, and also by pectin-rich foods such as fruit skin.

While nutrient supplementation can have a role in maintaining proper brain function and treating certain psychiatric disorders, nutrients should, in the first instance, be consumed as part of a balanced wholefood diet.

If you’re interested in participating in a clinical trial prescribing nutrients for treating depression (SE Queensland and Victoria only), visit nutrientsdepressionstudy.

Do you have any experience with mental health problems? Do you believe diet could help?