We all know what we eat affects our ability to think, and our mood. In fact, thinking and eating are intricately connected: what and how we eat affects our mental health, and our mental health affects what and how we eat, as I discuss in my book Think and Eat Yourself Smart.
In this week’s blog and podcast, I will talk about 3 particular nutrition tips that can help you think clearly and successfully, and boost your mental health!
1. Find a seat while you eat!
Summertime is often filled with outdoor parties and food trucks, meaning you're spending more time standing up and eating. But, if you want to truly enjoy your meal, researchers say you're better off finding a seat! A recent study from USF shows that standing just for a few minutes while eating can mute taste buds, impacting taste evaluation, temperature perception and, overall, how much is eaten.
Why? Our ears interact with our taste buds—the vestibular system of the inner ear is responsible for balance, posture and spatial orientation, and the gustatory system is responsible for taste and flavor. Holding a standing posture for even a few minutes can prompt physical stress, potentially affecting our taste buds and food choices. The force of gravity pushes blood to the lower parts of the body, causing the heart to work harder to pump blood back up to the top of the body, accelerating our heart rate. This activates the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal (HPA) axis and leads to increased levels of hormone cortisol, reducing the sensory sensitivity of our taste buds. This biological reaction can result in us eating too quickly, which, in turn, affects our overall digestion, and can possibly result in overeating and digestive issues like bloating and acid reflux. It can also take the enjoyment out of eating, and set up toxic associations between eating and rushing about. This, in turn, can have a negative impact on mental health because our taste buds are designed to allow us to enjoy eating and calm our emotions through the release of neurochemicals—often, when we eat standing up or just gobble down our food, this doesn’t happen in the way it should.
Sitting down to eat a meal with your loved ones is not only healthier when it comes to your digestion, but also your social life! Meals are an integral part of human society, and great for our mental health (can you think of a human celebration that doesn’t involve some kind of food???). We also tend to focus on the conversations at hand when we eat around the table, not just what is on our plate, which helps us eat more slowly, positively affecting our relationships, digestion and mental wellbeing.
2. Your gut microbiome is a great mental health therapist!
The gut microbiome, that is the world of bacteria living in our digestive system, doesn’t just exist to help us break down food. There is a constant conversation going on between the brain and gut, which also has its own amazing neurons, just like the spinal cord! This relationship is incredibly important when it comes to our mental health, which is both directly and indirectly affected by what we eat.
In fact, a growing body of research shows that certain gut bacteria not only influence thought processes and the physical structure of the brain, but also that our thought processes and physical structure of the brain affect our gut bacteria. As I told all my patients in my clinical practice (and anyone who asks me today), what we eat affects how we think, and how we think affects what we eat and how we digest food!
This is really exciting news when it comes to mental health. A 2015 analysis points out that “the human gut harbors a dynamic and complex microbial ecosystem, consisting of approximately 1 kg of bacteria in the average adult,” which, rather incredibly, is “approximately the weight of the human brain”! Over the past several years, scientific research suggests that these billions of minute bacteria have a huge impact on our emotions and behavior, anxiety levels and our response to fear. One recent study from UCLA indicates that a selection of gut microbes may be linked to regions of the brain associated with mood and general behavior, highlighting the strong correlation between cognition and the gut microbiome. Essentially, we come designed with our own internal colony of gut therapists!
This gut-brain connection is one of the main reasons why it is so important that we watch what we are thinking AND what we are eating. If we are consuming a diet that is full of processed and refined foods (what many call the Modern American Diet, or MAD), it will affect not only our weight and overall physical health, but also our mental wellbeing by directly impacting the functionality of the microbiome. A sustainable, real food diet, on the other hand, can positively impact the health of our gut, and, in turn, the health of our mind! That there’s something going on between the organisms in our gut and the thoughts and feelings we experience is now undeniable, and the sooner we embrace this and incorporate it into our lifestyle, the sooner we'll comprehend just how emotionally powerful our gut-brain really is!
Indeed, when it comes to our mental health, the gut microbiome can make a big difference. Researchers at Shanghai Jiao Tong University School of Medicine analyzed 21 studies that focused on gut bacteria interventions to treat anxiety. The review, which involved 1,503 subjects, found that certain approaches may help alleviate the condition. From this research and other studies, there is a growing consensus that our microbiome has an influential role on our mental health, learning, cognition, autism and neurological issues like Parkinson’s!
Paying attention to the health of your gut microbiome through the type of foods you eat and digestive supplements like probiotics and prebiotics can reduce bloating and other digestive issues, and contribute to a happier mood, less physical discomfort and more body positivity. This why we, as a family, have adopted a real, whole foods diet, sustainable food-grade prebiotic fiber and quality probiotics (especially taken at night, which helps restore the microbiome while you sleep). One of my favorite probiotics brand is BiOptimizer P3OM Probiotics, and my readers can get a free bottle sent to their home by visiting www.p3om.com/leaffree with the code leaffreep3om. You can aslo get 20% off your order of BiOptimizers at www.bioptimizers.com/drleaf with the coupon code: DRLEAF20. This has really made a difference in our lives, and can make a difference for you as well!
For more information on the gut-brain connection and what we eat at home, see my book Think and Eat Yourself Smart.
3. Reduce your sugar intake and eliminate refined, processed carbs!
I read a lot. In fact, I spend hours of my day researching science articles and books because, number one, I love to read, and, number two, it builds cognitive resilience in my brain and is excellent for mental health and to prevent the dementias (listen to my podcast #87 for more on this). I always learn a lot of new information that not only increases my intelligence, but also benefits my wellbeing, while keeping me up to date in my field. To this end, I have come across a lot of research lately on the correlation between low carb/low sugar diets and improved mental health.
Of course, I am very “hot” about eating real food mindfully; as mentioned earlier, I wrote a book on this subject called Think and Eat Yourself Smart. And, over the past several months, my family and I have been pursuing a controlled-carb, real food diet using the Keto principle, and we love how it is making us feel, both physically and mentally. I will never advocate that one way of eating is better than another – my golden rule is always to eat whichever way works for you, as long as it’s real food eaten mindfully! However, I do like to experiment with different ways and combinations of food, and I felt a discussion about the “keto diet” we are trying as a family may be beneficial for you as well.
There is increasing evidence that nutritional approaches to mental health can really make a difference. For example, Dr. Julia Rucklidge, a global expert on nutrition and mental health, has published over 100 peer-reviewed articles showing how micronutrients and diet can improve mental health. Her 2014 TEDx talk, titled “The surprisingly dramatic role of nutrition in mental health”, demonstrates that nutrition is potentially more effective than psychotropic drugs when it comes to mental health, and is definitely worth watching.
Low carb/controlled carb diets are, of course, nothing new: from Banting to Atkins to keto, the list goes on and on. And, in many cases, they have shown great potential to help treat problems such as epilepsy, autism and Type II diabetes. Why?
a) Carbs break down into sugars, and an excess of sugars in the bloodstream means an excess of sugars in the brain. These excess sugars (especially processed and refined MAD sugars) can be toxic because they are grabbed by proteins in order to try to neutralize them before they do too much damage, forming AGEs (advanced glycation end products). These AGEs can potentially cause cell death and affect attention, cognition, processing, memory, neurotransmitter activity, which, in turn, affects our mood, emotions and sleeping patterns. Ever wonder why your child can’t concentrate in class after eating a highly processed, sugary breakfast cereal? It’s really hard!
Eating a diet low in sugar/with controlled carbs can prevent this glucotoxicity, potentially improving concentration and mood in all ages, which is why it should be our first port of call when children or adults are battling to concentrate in school or at work (as I always used to tell my patients, a healthy diet doesn't have terrible side-effects, unlike many drugs that are prescribed these days!).
b) Excessive carbs, especially highly processed carbs from the MAD diet, can upset insulin levels. Persistently high insulin levels, in turn, mess with the important insulin receptors on the blood-brain barrier, which reduces the amount of insulin that gets into the brain. Without sufficient insulin, brain cells can’t turn glucose into energy, which can result in sluggish glucose metabolism, weak cognitive processing, a lack of flexibility of thought and poor memory. It also becomes a risk factor for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s! Eating low carb/low sugar diet can potentially reverse this damage because doing so increases the likelihood that the brain gets the energy it needs to function well.
c) Excess sugar can lead to inflammation because it sends a signal to the neuro-immune system that there is a type of invasion in the brain and body. The immune system responds by sending out inflammatory cytokines, which are great to start the healing process but can become a problem in excess, which occurs when we continue to eat more carbs than we need (which means we are eating too much sugar). This inflammation, which is supposed to decrease after about 21 days, doesn’t, and becomes a potential hotbed of neurological disease and mental health issues, such as nagging feelings of unease, anxiousness, depression and so on.
If this is paired with bad thinking habits, you have a real disaster on your hands! However, the great news is you can reverse this process through detoxing your brain and body. For more information on this see my books Switch on Your Brain, Think and Eat Yourself Smart and Think, Learn, Succeed, and my new mind detox app SWITCH, which is now available on Google Play and iTunes!
1. Find a seat while you eat and get happy!
2. Your gut microbiome is a great mental health therapist!
3. A low carb/low sugar way of eating may really help improve your mental health!
If you would like to learn more about the mind-body connection and how to eat correctly to improve your mental and brain health, join me at my Mental Health Solutions Summit this December in Dallas, TX December 6-7, 2019! This conference is for everyone: teachers, CEOs, students, parents, doctors, life coaches...everyone! For more information and to register click here.