May is Mental Health Awareness Month. According to the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, mental health is not the absence of mental illness, but rather a state of complete physical, psychological and social well-being. It is among the most common health conditions in the United States, affecting one in five Americans, including children.
Because mental health can be lurking in the background at any stage of life, creating environments that promote mental health, such as making healthy choices, and healthier lifestyles are necessary for your mental well-being.
Trust Your “Second Brain” - The Gut
Have you ever experienced a rapid heartbeat, deep breathing, and tightening of muscles, especially in your stomach, whenever you are feeling nervous or stressed? This is because the part of your brain that controls emotions has sent a signal to get you ready for the fight-or-fight response. While this is a healthy response, remaining on a high stress level for a long time can take a toll on your overall health, in particular your digestive system. The most common symptoms include abdominal pain and nausea, as well as bloating and flatulence. Perhaps the most dangerous response is inflammation since the brain will interpret this signal as a new stressor, which together with external stressors, will eventually lead to physiological, psychological and behavioral symptoms.
What Research Says
Research shows a healthy microflora in your gut is necessary for proper brain function and behavior development. A recently published study showed the beneficial effects of probiotics, especially the live cultures bifidobacteria and lactobacilli, in improving the brain-gut connection. Inversely, a diet rich in saturated fats can have detrimental effects for the gut, brain function and mood.
Foods for Mental Well-Being
Fruits and vegetables are packed with fiber, vitamins, minerals and bioactive compounds that together can help you support a healthy body and improve quality of life. Increasing intake of fruits and vegetables can offer numerous health benefits, including cardiovascular, anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effects.
- Fruits such as oranges, berries, grapefruit, cherries, apples contain significant amounts of vitamins C, E, and A. These vitamins aid in boosting the immune system and decrease inflammation by acting as free radical scavengers.
- Anthocyanins are the pigments that gives fruits the purple, blue and red colors. They suppress free radical formation, reducing the risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease while improving the effects of aging and memory.
- Munch on berries - especially blackberries, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, and strawberries. Eat them as a snack, mixed in cereals or baked goods, sprinkle over salads, or blend into a delicious smoothie.
- Eat your veggies – cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, kale, arugula and brussel sprouts have anti-inflammatory properties. Green-leafy vegetables such as spinach and collard greens may also help improve memory. Add arugula to your cheese pizza, try kale chips with your sandwich, or consider a broccoli soup for lunch.
- Omega-3’s are essential fatty acids essential for brain health. Seafood and fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, herring and bluefin tuna are some of the good sources of the essential Omega-3 DHA. In its absence, the body can produce DHA from the other Omega-3 ALA that is found in walnuts, chia and flax seeds. Eat seafood at least twice a week, either baked, grilled or broiled. Consider a walnut black bean burger for your meatless day.
All too often, comfort foods are interpreted as rich, creamy, delicious sugary or buttery salty foods. While comfort foods are meant to ease you, studies have not found this to be true. However, science shows the health benefits of consuming five servings of fruits and vegetables every day does reduce mortality rates. Therefore, whenever you feel like reaching out for a comfort food, grab a banana, an apple or munch on dry fruits, and be happy knowing that you are doing something good for your body.
Foods to Support Memory. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Brain-Gut Axis. Exploring the Power of Probiotics. New Frontiers in Research. Lallemand Health Solutions.
Dhalaria, et al; Bioactive Compounds of Edible Fruits with Their Anti-Aging properties: A Comprehensive Review to Prolong Human Life.
Xia Wang, et al; Fruits and vegetable consumption and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies.