The brain is one of the most energy and nutrient-hungry organs in your entire body, and your diet has a huge effect on how well it works. Diet has an indirect effect on brain health via inflammation, gut health, and blood sugar control, all of which have serious consequences for your brain cells.
The subject of mental health as an illness or physical disorder is relatively new. Emotional stress, trauma and abuse can result in reactions within the body that manifest as physical disease. Using therapy and positive thinking alone to ward off symptoms is often insufficient.
The stigma associated with mental illness can become a burden making it challenging to associate with others in a normal setting, find work, or generally live a normal and healthy life. If a mental illness is left unchecked, it can spiral out of control. Accumulating research in the field of neuroscience has confirmed that nutrition can significantly impact mental health.
These underlying physical conditions contributing to mental health disorders can be addressed through dietary changes and lifestyle support and successfully combined with professional therapy or medication.
A healthy diet allows for a healthier brain.
The Brain & Inflammation
Diet can both trigger and calm inflammation and that has a huge effect on mental health. Inflammation is a normal physiological response to injury or stress, but if it goes on too long, it can become problematic. Inflammation starts the process of healing, but it can create long-term concerns if it becomes chronic.
An increase in inflammation is associated with measurable differences in brain function and can even reduce the production of new neurons. Studies have shown that being constantly exposed to (or eating) inflammatory substances worsens mood and can lead to feelings of social isolation and depression. Inflammation has also been linked to challenges in feeling pleasure and major depressive disorders.
A systematic review concluded that inflammation caused by extreme psychological stressors may be the link between psychological stress and mental illness.
A Paleo diet aims to provide a basis for anti-inflammatory foods, thus calming inflammatory tendencies in the brain and body:
The foundations of the Paleo diet exclude foods that are known to cause inflammation or damage in the body such as grains, legumes, and dairy along with all processed and refined foods. Many of these foods are deficient in a variety of vitamins and minerals, as well as lacking other vital nutrients and quality fats.
How the Paleo Supports Mental Health
Building Blocks of Neurotransmitters
Animal foods are rich in quality protein, which is made up of various essential amino acids that form the building blocks of key neurotransmitters such as dopamine, noradrenaline, serotonin and melatonin; these play pivotal roles in mood and sleep.
Higher Levels Of Co-Factors
Eating lots of whole, unprocessed foods potentially provides an abundance of vitamins and minerals; in particular, zinc, magnesium, B6, iron, and Vitamin C which are critical to making those brain chemicals.
Source Of Quality Essential Fatty Acids
A Paleo diet encourages eating naturally occurring animal and plant fats which are crucial for good brain function and healthy brain cells. The brain is more than 60% fat, hence eating the good fats and avoiding adulterated, processed fats and seed oils such as those found in baked goods and fast foods, is supportive for mental health and mood disorders.
Read on here for more on Paleo fats
No Refined Carbohydrates
Avoiding refined carbohydrates such as the processed grains found in cereals, baked goods and the like helps the body better manage blood sugar levels which otherwise may impact your moods and energy levels. Some foods such as gluten, found in all wheat products, can have detrimental effects on brain function as well as elsewhere in the body.
These used to be included in the diets of many traditional cultures – not surprising really when you consider the beneficial bacteria and the higher density of many nutrients - sauerkraut may contain up to 20 times the amount of vitamin C than raw cabbage!
Due to the gut-brain link, having diverse and healthy bacteria in your gut may have a positive impact on your brain health.
A Paleo diet is very dense in the nutrients needed to support your liver detoxification pathways. When your liver is functioning better there may be a positive effect on the health of your brain, as toxins are cleared from your body and more nutrients are available to make those uplifting brain chemicals.
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The Gut & The Brain
The gut is another huge regulator for overall inflammation, and a gut-friendly diet protects your brain by reducing overall inflammation.
The gut microbiome also assists in regulating mood and neurological function. Diets that increase gut bacterial diversity are associated with better mental health and cognitive function. A Paleo diet filled with fresh, organic, seasonal produce encourages a diverse gut microbiome.
Find out what’s in season in your area here
Mental health has much of its foundation in the gut. Keep your gut and your brain happy by including these nutrients in your diet:
Omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory and important for brain health, especially at the beginning and end of life. Studies show a correlation between a deficiency in omega-3 and depression. Clinical trials have revealed taking adequate amounts of omega-3 improves symptoms of ADHD, bipolar disorders, depression, and schizophrenia. A 1 g daily intake of omega-3 in the form of DHA and EPA was found to support cognitive function.
Food sources include: fish, seafood, walnuts and flax.
B vitamins include choline, B1, B6, B9 (folate), and B12. Folate/B9 is essential for pregnant women since it helps the baby’s brain and spinal cord develop. B12 is particularly important for brain function in aging.
Food sources include: all meats or animal foods, especially organ meat.
Iron, selenium, and magnesium are three important minerals for brain health.
- Iron deficiency is one major cause of fatigue and “brain fog”
- Magnesium is important for managing stress and improved sleep.
- Selenium is an antioxidant that helps reduce oxidative stress and may be protective against inflammatory brain disorders.
Food sources include:
Iron: red meat
Selenium: Brazil nuts, fish and seafood, shiitake mushrooms, asparagus.
Magnesium: almonds, spinach, other nuts, avocado.
Fat & Cholesterol
Both dietary fat and cholesterol have been unfairly demonized for the past few decades. They are typically found in the same foods. Fat is important for regulating mood and helping your brain respond to stress.
Food sources include: meat, especially red meat and organ meat, and egg yolks.
Specific types of amino acids reduce symptoms of mental illness while supporting mental health. Depression is associated with low levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine, noradrenaline, GABA, and serotonin. These neurotransmitters require certain amino acids such as tryptophan. Tryptophan is a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin and has been known to reduce depression and OCD disorders. The amino acids phenylalanine and tyrosine are converted into the transmitters norepinephrine and dopamine which support mental well-being.
Food sources include: All animal foods (flesh and organs) and bone broth
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A Paleo Diet for Mental Health? Definitely!
The nutrients discussed are great examples of how a Paleo diet can improve your mental health. Whether you are looking to lose weight, boost your energy, or break free from the chains of mental health issues – a Paleo diet is a good addition towards a healthy lifestyle.