In Western medicine, emotional issues and issues to do with the mind are often treated separately from the physical body. However, in Ayurveda, the mind is very much treated as part of the body with the knowledge that it has a huge effect on the body and vice versa.
We can see this through diet for example – if the brain isn’t nourished, like all organs in the body, it starts to become out of balance and doesn't function to its optimum level. Or, if a person is under pressure, it's evident that the symptoms of stress affect our brain (causing issues like low confidence and panic attacks) and then manifest themselves physically too, leaving you with stomach pain or a headache. Therefore, it's so important to nourish our minds.
Nutrition and mental health
In the UK alone, 1 in 6 adults has a mental health problem and half of all mental illness is established by the age of 14 (1). As a nutritional therapist, focusing on food and working with other specialist practitioners to bring about change in people's lives for the better is key.
The first port of call is always promoting good gut health. A diet including plenty of plants and fermented foods help to create the right environment for beneficial bacteria to grow. This, in turn, helps the mind feel less foggy-headed, enabling people to feel full of energy and also improves memory and concentration. Also, in the gut is where the body makes most of its serotonin or the ‘happiness’ neurotransmitter – not the brain. And it all ties in together really – there's a reason why we have a ‘gut feeling’ or 'gut instinct' as it’s home to the most nerve endings outside of the central nervous system. So you could say that the gut is the body's 'second brain'.
Best vitamins and foods for brain function and good gut health
There are quite a few foods that help improve memory and promote a healthy gut, but worth mentioning first are tryptophan and glutamine (which is the precursor of GABA, a calming neurotransmitter). These are all found in lean meat, poultry, nuts, seeds and avocado, for example. They help to increase lean muscle tissue, help decrease body fat and help to transport vital nutrients to all organs, including the brain (2).
Foods containing iron like spinach and lean meat can help support a deficiency in red blood cells that can lead to exhaustion. Foods like these naturally support healthy red blood cell levels and a healthy gut (3).
Try including zinc-rich foods like pumpkin seeds, prawns and lean beef to help support or ease any digestive problems you may be facing. Zinc helps to support the production of strong stomach acids which helps break down food and helps the body absorb the necessary nutrients (4). And as we know, these all support the necessary absorption into the key areas we're discussing – the gut and the brain.
Selenium, found in antioxidant enzymes and in any organic veg and foods like Brazil nuts, are all needed too to help minimize the damage of free radical stress and reduce inflammation in the body, keeping you feeling happier and healthier for longer (5).
5. Essential fatty acids
Our brains are made up of 60% essential fatty acids, so oily fish at least twice a week or an Omega 3 supplement is essential brain-food. Try to opt for small fish such as mackerel, trout or salmon to minimize mercury (6).
On another note, try to stay away from sugar as it can pose a real problem – sugar excites dopamine, the reward centre of the brain which can then make us addicted to that feeling and to constantly struggle with sugar cravings. It’s different from serotonin, which creates feelings of happiness. Sugar crashes can also exacerbate low mood as well as anxiety too, so make sure that you are taking care of your gut to be able to take care of your emotions and mind. Here's to good gut health and good brain health!
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1. Fundamental Facts About Mental Health: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/sites/default/files/fundamental-facts-15.pdf
2. National Institutes of Health: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2805706/
3. US National Library of Medicine: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3734539/
4. Office of Dietary Supplements: https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-Consumer/
5. Body Ecology: https://bodyecology.com/articles/13-core-nutrients-of-the-gut
6. US National Library of Medicine: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20329590