Go ahead: Feed your ‘second brain’

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Last minute still counts: May is Mental Health Month.

Mind and body are inseparable; one invariably affects the other. So when we talk about health, we can’t focus only on the heart, brain, or stomach; it’s all interconnected. That’s why this year’s Mental Health Month theme is “Fitness #4Mind4Body.”

The links between mental health and exercise, sleep, and stress are well known. But did you know how much food affects the mind? Science is increasingly linking the two. This isn’t to say food is a substitute for professional advice in cases of major illness, but it can go a long way toward optimizing health.

Researchers continue to verify that what you eat impacts your thoughts. From various studies since 2009 in peer-reviewed medical journals:

Diet linked to depression: People who eat a diet high in whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, legumes, fish and unsaturated fats are up to 35 percent less likely to develop depression. Diets which regularly include sugary, fried, or processed foods increase depression risk as much as 60 percent.

Kids, too: Pregnant women who eat diets high in processed, fried and sugary foods have children with more emotional problems. Young people with the healthiest diets are half as likely to have depression; those with diets of junk and processed foods are 80 percent more likely to be depressed.

Food helps, or harms, learning: Diet is linked to the brain’s hippocampus, key to learning, memory, and mental health. People with healthy diets have a bigger hippocampus.

Feeling low? Eat veggies, fish: One study found a third of participants with depression experienced full symptom relief after improving their diet. The better the diet, the more their depression improved. Key are omega 3 fatty acids (e.g., pink fish, dark green veggies, walnuts and flax), vitamin B (fresh leafy greens and whole grains), and D (salmon or tuna, eggs, dairy, and sunlight).

The mind-tummy connection goes beyond food to the gut itself. Ever wonder why emotions can feel so physical — “gut-wrenching” is so literal? The “gut” (stomach, intestines, gall bladder, liver, and pancreas) is sensitive to emotion, and the brain reacts to its signals. These are the organs which digest and process food, and eliminate waste.

The healthier the “gut,” the better we feel — emotionally as well as physically. That’s why the lining of the gut has been called “the second brain.”

Two things connect the gut to the brain: The vagus nerve, which controls messages to the gut, heart, lungs, and other vital organs; and messenger chemicals — hormones and neurotransmitters. These are affected by bacteria, viruses, and fungi that live in the gut (the gut microbiome). The food we eat determines whether this biome (with resulting messages) is beneficial, harmless, or harmful.

How can we tell? Studies indicate strong relationships between certain mental health problems (or their worsening) and GI symptoms such as heartburn, indigestion, acid reflux, bloating, pain, constipation, and/or diarrhea.

Foods which encourage a beneficial gut biome are called prebiotics. These include lean meats, whole grains, fish, fiber (asparagus and firm bananas too), berries and apples, and raw vegetables. Food bad for the gut are sugary (including soft drinks), fried, or processed.

Probiotics — good, live bacteria — help too. Examples of probiotic foods are yogurt (the label should say live or active cultures), unpasteurized sauerkraut and kimchi, miso soup, kefir (a yogurt-like beverage), kombucha (fermented black tea), tempeh (made of soybeans), and apple cider vinegar.

If you’re living a healthy lifestyle but still struggle with mental health, the National Mental Health Association’s Mhascreening.org offers free symptom screening and resources. As always if you are in crisis, confidential help is available 24/7 at (800) 273-TALK.


Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network who’s good about fish but remains a chocoholic. Contact her at Sholeh@cdapress.com.

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