Do you find yourself feeling fatigued, unmotivated, and depressed in the winter? You may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder. If you are one of the three million Americans each year that experience these symptoms, there’s hope—and it doesn’t come just in the form of medication or getting a big dose of sunshine! We’re always learning more about the role of nutrition in treating mental health conditions. Taming inflammation, stabilizing blood sugar, and nourishing the gut are all fundamental to supporting optimal mental health. And it doesn’t have to be hard. There are a few easy to make foods that you can add into your diet right now to boost mood and beat the winter blues.
Keep reading for our favorite foods to support optimal mental wellbeing—and if you’re interested in learning more, join us in two weeks for our class on nutrition for mental health.
Inflammation appears to influence the development of depression and anxiety in numerous ways. For one thing, inflammatory molecules can damage our mitochondria, influencing energy production and efficiency within our brains. Inflammation also impacts the synthesis and activity of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. So, how does this relate to salmon? Salmon, along with other cold water fatty fish (sardines, lake trout, mackerel, tuna), provide us with anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids. Additionally, salmon is an excellent source of tryptophan, an amino acid that our body uses to make serotonin. And optimal levels of serotonin = optimal mood.
Shaped like little brains, it’s no wonder walnuts are such a great brain superfood! They’re a good source of the amino acid precursors to our neurotransmitters. In addition to tryptophan, walnuts provide us with tyrosine and glutamine, amino acids used to make dopamine and gaba within the body. While dopamine keeps our brain focused and boosts memory and cognition, GABA promotes relaxation and has a calming effect. Having a proper balance of these neurotransmitters is essential for supporting mental health.
You may have heard that walnuts also contain omega 3 fatty acids. While this is true, walnuts provide us with a type of omega 3 called ALA that must be converted to another form (EPA) in order to provide anti-inflammatory benefits. Unfortunately, we typically only convert 8 to 20 percent of ALA to EPA within the body. This is often why we recommend including fish in your diet or taking a supplement to obtain adequate amounts of EPA.
Here at MIMC, we’re big fans of avocados. Not only do avocados boost the production of dopamine, serotonin, and GABA, but they’re also superstars when it comes to preventing the blood sugar rollercoaster. Keeping blood sugar balanced supports a stable mood and even reduces the risk for cognitive decline. One of the primary ways we can keep our blood sugar stable is by pairing carbohydrate sources with fat, fiber, and/or protein. Lucky for us, avocados contain two of these golden tickets. As an excellent source of both monounsaturated fats and fiber, avocados are a great addition to a carbohydrate-based meal or snack for blood sugar stability and brain health.
As part of the cruciferous vegetable family, broccoli contains a a group of compounds called isothiocyanates (ITCs). These ITCs provide anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and detoxification benefits, all of which are essential for a healthy brain. Additionally, one cup of cooked broccoli also provides approximately 20 percent of our daily B6 needs. Vitamin B6 is essential for many neurological processes, including the production of our neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, GABA, dopamine, and melatonin. One of our favorite ways to enjoy broccoli is in smoothies. Swap out your spinach for broccoli next time you make a smoothie—or better yet, add both!
If you read our blog post on the gut-brain connection, then you’re already familiar with the importance of a healthy microbiome for mental health. Having a diverse intestinal microbial community is essential for mood and cognition. One of the best ways you can support diversity is by including a wide variety of raw and fermented foods in your diet. Sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, yogurt, kombucha, and tempeh are all great choices. Not interested in making your own fermented veggies? Many food co-ops and natural grocers now carry a wide selection of local and organic fermented foods.
Looking for a way to integrate all of these foods into one meal? Check out our recipe idea below.
30-Minute Brain Boosting Sheet Pan Meal
- ½ lb. salmon
- 1-2 heads of broccoli, chopped
- 1 Tbsp. olive oil
- 1 Tbsp. minced garlic
- 1-2 lemons, sliced
- ¼ cup walnuts
- ¼ cup sauerkraut
- ½ avocado, sliced
- Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400 F. Cover baking sheet with parchment paper or silicone liner. Place salmon and broccoli on the baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, garlic, and salt/pepper. Place the sliced lemons on top of the salmon. Bake for 15 minutes, or until salmon is cooked through. Serve with chopped walnuts, avocado, and sauerkraut.