We all have good days and bad days, but is there a connection between how you feel and the foods you consume? Taking that one step further, is it possible to support your mood with food? Your brain demands a constant supply of energy. In fact, it accounts for approximately 20 percent of your daily calorie needs. What you eat can directly affect the structure and function of your brain, and, ultimately, your mood.
In order for your brain to function at its best, it is essential to feed it the nutrients it requires. Getting the right types and amounts of these nutrients supports your mental health by first and foremost, preventing damage to your brain. This can cause loss of memory, slower processing and can disrupt your thinking processes. Secondly, key nutrients help build and support brain chemicals (called neurotransmitters). These neurotransmitters include serotonin (helps with sleep, feelings of calmness and relaxation), dopamine (promotes feeling energized, the ability to focus and be alert), as well as several others like GABA, endorphins and nor-epinephrine.
Top nutrients to support optimal brain function
- The right kind of fat
Your brain is made up predominantly of fat, with a large percentage of that being omega 3, and more specifically, DHA. DHA is required for your brain cell structures. If you do not consume enough DHA through diet, other fats ultimately take its place. If these fats are pro-inflammatory fats like trans fats, this could have potential negative consequences like increased risk for depression. Another type of omega 3 fat is EPA. EPA helps promote blood flow to the brain which provides it with oxygen and nutrients. EPA can help to lower inflammation which can, in turn, lower the risk of anxiety and depression.
Food sources of omega 3 fats – specifically EPA and DHA – include fatty fish like salmon, trout, herring, sardines, and mackerel. Other sources of omega 3 can be found in olive oil, seeds, nuts and avocado. One thing to keep in mind about these sources is that they contain the plant form of omega 3 called ALA. Your body actually needs to convert ALA to the preferred EPA and DHA for the brain to use. The downside is that we are not very efficient at this process and cannot convert enough to meet our needs. What this means is that you should aim to consume fatty fish 2-3 times per week to meet your EPA and DHA needs. If you can’t do this, you may want to talk to a healthcare practitioner about supplementation.
The building blocks of neurotransmitters are amino acids. Amino acids come from the digestion and breakdown of dietary protein; therefore, it is essential to ensure you are consuming enough protein throughout the day. Protein is found in meat, fish, eggs, legumes (peas, beans and lentils), nuts and seeds, tofu and dairy products. A simple strategy to remember is to always include a protein food at every meal and snack.
- Vitamin D
Your brain loves vitamin D. A deficiency in vitamin D has been linked to depression, anxiety, SAD and dementia. In Canada, where you will find vitamin D present in food is primarily those which have been fortified7, such as cow’s milk and milk alternatives. Natural food sources of vitamin D are limited. The most frequently consumed are egg yolks and fatty fish like salmon and sardines7. While you can get vitamin D from the sun, in Canada from mid-October to mid-April, the sun is just too low in the sky to produce vitamin D in your skin. So the question on everyone’s mind: should I take a supplement? Studies suggest that supplementation is the best way to ensure adequate vitamin D intake to meet needs4. The recommended dose should be discussed with your doctor or registered dietitian to ensure you are not taking too much. Health Canada recommends supplementing with 400 IU daily, if over the age of 50, but many health care providers suggest that 1000 IU daily all year round is generally regarded as safe3
- B Vitamins
B-vitamins are important for your brain and nerve health. They are also essential for making neurotransmitters. A deficiency of many B vitamins may present as neurological symptoms like depression or issues with thinking and memory. Your body cannot store B vitamins so you require a steady supply of them daily to satisfy our requirements. Food sources of B vitamins include whole grains, nuts and seeds, green leafy vegetables, citrus fruit and lean meat. Variety is key. You want to include a mix of fruits and veg, nuts and seeds as well as different grains (like rice, oats, or quinoa) to help get an adequate intake of all types of B vitamins.
- Eating Patterns
While this is not one single nutrient, your eating patterns play a very important role in your mood. The goal with eating regularly is to help keep blood sugar levels stable and prevent dips in energy. Your brain relies on a steady supply of glucose as its primary fuel source. If your blood sugar drops, you might find yourself feeling tired, irritable and depressed. Eating regularly and choosing foods that release energy slowly will help to keep your blood sugar levels steady. Ensure you are eating regularly throughout the day. A good rule of thumb is if your meals are more than 4-6 hours apart, you should add in a small snack. My favourite snacks are a small piece of fruit paired with a handful of nuts or a few cubes of cheese and some sliced peppers dipped in hummus.
Ultimately, the food you choose to eat can impact your mood. Focus your energy on including as much variety as possible. Prioritize whole foods, plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and regular meal times. If you would like support from a registered dietitian to help create an optimal diet right for you, dietitian services are available through Shoppers Drug Mart. Visit www.shoppersdrugmart.ca/dietitians and schedule a free 15-minute call to learn more.
Jemma Besson is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator who works for Shoppers Drug Mart®.
The information provided is for personal use, reference and education only and is not intended to be a substitute for a physician’s advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please consult your healthcare professional for specific information on personal health matters. Also note: Dietitian services are currently only available in Ontario. Please contact your store to learn more. ®/TM 911979 Alberta Ltd. ©2020 Shoppers Drug Mart Inc