Mental Health and Nutrition

Followers of this blog know that I have been dealing with brain fog as symptom of long-haul COVID. I have blogged about it twice: once in December and once earlier this month. I continue to work with a speech therapist, follow the advice of the integrative medicine specialist I met with, and play my daily brain games. As part of this process, I have learned about expected factors that can affect how well my brain is functioning.

It has long been known that exercise can have positive effects on our brains–not just with regard to preventing cognitive decline, but also in fighting depression and anxiety. An overall healthy lifestyle that combines exercise, good nutrition, plenty of rest, and good social connections can influence our mental wellness.

The connections between nutrition and mental health goes back about 3000 years when it was noted by the ancient Chinese; this continued through the Greek and Roman periods right up to the 21st Century. In the last 20 years there has been a surge in research about which foods can improve mental health, in what quantity, and prepared in which ways. I recently completed a continuing education course that focused on this very topic; the on-line instructor was Maggie Moon.

Several takeaways from the class were:

–The main mood-regulating neurotransmitters are affected by nutrition. Certain foods can boost brain health such as berries, oysters, chia seeds, salmon, walnuts, kale, water, and watermelon.

–When it comes to mental illness, there are nutritional strategies that can complement other treatments. Certain foods have been found to have high anti-depressant properties. Chief among them are foods that are high in Omega 3 Fatty Acids; the brain needs fat and is also hungry for foods rich in anti-oxidants.

–The top foods for fighting mental illness have been found to be: vegetables, organ meat, fruit, seafood, beans, meats, grains, nuts and seeds, and dairy. The most recent studies place special importance on more nuts and vegetable diversity.

–Some foods have a negative effect on mental health: butter or stick margarine, whole-fat cheese, fried foods, red meat, and pastries/sweets. These should be consumed in limited quantities.

The presenter suggested that the easiest way to follow these recommendations is to follow the Mediterranean Diet, the DASH Diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), or the MIND Diet (Mediterranean-DASH Diet Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay). The MIND Diet takes the best of Mediterranean and DASH with a few adjustments. Traditional diets (Japanese, Norwegian) are also good for reaching the same goals.

We all know that what we eat matters when it comes to our physical health. We may also know that certain foods can either help or harm our cognition. What is exciting is to know that the right nutrition can also improve our mental health.

Making the right nutritional choices is part of an overall healthy lifestyle–not only for the part of us below the shoulders, but from the neck up as well!

Does Your Brain Have Time for a Quickie?

Almost two years ago, I blogged about the benefits of shorter workouts. Studies show that short bursts of activity have positive effects on one’s physical health; this is good news for those who do not necessarily have a lot of time in their day to exercise, but who might have smaller chunks of time throughout the day. Getting up from a desk or couch and engaging in moderate physical activity can still have a positive effect.

New research was reported on this week that not only can Quickie workouts have physical benefits, but they can also improve our brain health. A study at the Institute of Sport, Exercise, and Health at University College London found that people who spent even smaller amounts of time (6-9 minutes) in vigorous activity each day had higher cognition scores compared to those who did not. Vigorous activity was defined as aerobic dancing, jogging, running, swimming and biking up a hill–activities that boost heart rate and breathing. The researchers looked at how this affected participants’ short-term memory, problem-solving, and processing skills.

This is just one more important piece of research that proves how important exercise is–and reinforces the connection between physical activity and brain health. Although there are some brain games and other activities that help build brain health, the single biggest factor in improving cognition is physical activity; the more we exercise, the more blood our hearts pump to the cells keeping them properly nourished and doing their jobs. Of course, this includes all those cells in the brain.

In upcoming blog posts, I will explore this further and talk about ways that brain health can be boosted further by exercises that combine both physical and cognitive tasks.

Until then, get up off the couch–even if it is for less than 10 minutes–and get moving! Your body and your brain will thank you.