Mental Health – What’s diet got to do with it?

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To kick off our Mind Your Head Series, we talked to nutritionist and Maria Cross to find out how our eating habits can affect our mental wellbeing.

From ADHD to autism, depression to dementia, the number of people with mental health disorders is rising exponentially and research suggests that our changed food habits have an important role to play.

Here are four things you can do to optimise brain health through your diet:

Increase intake of Omega-3 fatty acids

The human brain consists of over 60% fat and to keep it healthy we need to feed it with the right sort of fat. In theory we need an equal amount of Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids – but in practice most of us consume over 15 times more Omega 6 than Omega 3.

Deficiency in DHA – an important Omega-3 fat – can lead to both depression and dementia. Make sure you get your DHA intake from oily fish and seafood. Avoid omega-6 fatty acids found in cooking oils made from soya, corn and sunflower as DHA is depleted by excess intake.

Instead, cook with coconut oil, butter, extra virgin oil and cold-pressed rapeseed oil.

Eat protective plants

Fat in the brain is vulnerable to oxidation and inflammation. Fortunately, certain plant foods contain chemicals such as polyphenols and carotenoids that counter that damage.

Polyphenols – found in dark fruits such as plums and berries, red onions, beans, green tea, cocoa and mushrooms – improve memory function, and carotenoids – found in red and yellow plants such as carrots, sweet potato, peppers and dark leafy greens – protect the central nervous system.

Fight depression with probiotics

Our second brain – located in the gut – consists of 100 million neurons (or brain cells). Our gut bacteria interact with these neurons and make neurotransmitters that communicate with the head brain via the vagus nerve.

The bacteria in the gut can profoundly affect mood, and psychobiotic therapy  – the supplementation of probiotics – can play a role in the treatment of depression.

Make sure you stock up on probiotic-rich foods, and foods that feed your gut bacteria, such as dark leafy greens, sauerkraut, yogurt and kefir.

Avoid gluten

Some foods can have the opposite effect. Did you know that gluten, a protein in common cereal grains such as wheat, rye and barley can seriously affect mental health in some people, by creating inflammation?

Symptoms of non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) range from brain “fog” to the medical condition gluten psychosis.

To avoid inflammation and overgrowth of bad bacteria stay away from gluten, excessive alcohol, smoking and sugar.