Brooke is worried about entering her most dreaded month – November. Her often upbeat personality and motivation seem to be suppressed during the long cold days and limited sunlight this month has to offer. She spoke with her doctor and learned she might have mild SAD or seasonal affective disorder. This basically means a short-term period of mild depression in her shoulder season between biking and skiing. Brooke’s found herself craving more carb-rich foods and gaining what she likes to call her “fall five pounds.” Her doc suggested she visit a dietitian to learn what foods can help with mood and pick herself out of her fall funk.
Three Key Nutrients for Brain Health
The human brain is only about three pounds, however, it’s one of the most complex of any animal and contains about one hundred billion neurons passing information at speeds of up to 250 mph. It’s no wonder this organ takes a lot of fuel to operate efficiently! I’ll take you through three key nutrients for a happy, healthy brain.
1. Focus on complex carbohydrates
This one is really a no-brainer (pun intended). Carbohydrates serve a few purposes to our brains. First, carbs break down into glucose, or sugar, which is your brain’s preferred fuel source. They also stimulate the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin. Complex carbohydrates are whole, unprocessed foods which have more fibre than their processed counterparts. This fibre slows down the digestion process and releases a consistent flow of energy to our brains. Focus on foods like whole grains, starchy vegetables, fruit, and legumes to get your daily needs of complex carbohydrates.
2. Fuel your brain with amino acids
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. In the brain, they’re used to create neurons, connective tissue, and neurotransmitters. For example, the amino acid tyrosine and phenylalanine are converted in the brain to the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine acts as an important regular of mood, helps ward off depression while increasing motivation and mental focus. Norepinephrine is necessary for alertness, concentration and forming new memories. Excellent sources of tyrosine include soy products, fish, almonds, avocados, pumpkin seeds, peanuts, bananas, and most dairy products, especially aged cheese. Rich sources of tryptophan include poultry, salmon, tuna, shellfish, soybeans, brown rice, cottage cheese, peanuts, and sesame seeds.
3. Feed your mind fatty acids
The human brain is nearly 60 percent fat. It’s not surprising then, that fatty acids are crucial for our brain health. Fatty acids are comprised of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These are known as essential fatty acids since our body can’t make them, we must obtain these through our diet. Unfortunately, our diet in North America is often excessive in omega-6 and limited in omega-3 fats. The best-absorbed form of omega-3 is from fatty fish like tuna, salmon, and sardines. Not to fret my vegetarian friends, some plant sources of omega-3 come from chia seeds, ground flax seed/oil, and walnuts.
Bonus tip: Stay active! Studies have shown that exercise can treat depression as effectively as an anti-depressant medication. Exercise promotes positive changes in the brain including neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm and well-being. If you’re not exercising right now, start small. It has been shown that even a 15-minute walk in the evenings can produce feel-good endorphins and allow your brain some time to relax.
Now that we have some ideas for helping feed our brain, try setting a nutrition-goal for yourself to work on this month! Goals give us a sense of purpose and satisfaction, not to mention making it much more likely to create positive change in your life. Take advantage of the extra time we have during this calm, quiet season to feed your mental health.