cauliflower brain

Feed Your Brain and Feel Better

Did you know that up to 40% of the nutrients you eat goes into feeding your brain? 

The food you eat not only fuels your physical health but new research shows it affects our mental health too!

Is your brain foggy and lethargic, ruminating and making you feel depressed, or overactive and anxious?  So what is it you are putting into your body?  If we’re really going to make a difference in how we feel and think, then we have to look at what we are feeding our brain.

We need to start taking a different approach to treating mental health, because medication alone is not the answer.  If it were, then we wouldn’t be having a global mental health crisis right now. Globally, the number of people taking antidepressants, anti-anxiety and anxti-psychotic medication has doubled over the last five years to 17 percent of the adult population.  

So I want to shine the light on nutrition to improve your mental health.

You’re not going to like what you read because this requires a move away from ultra-processed foods which are usually cheap and convenient.  The Western diet is typically high in calories, refined grains and sugar, heavily processed, high in chemicals and low in fresh produce.  These foods are packed out with ingredients like starch, vegetable oil and sugars along with additives like colours, flavours and emulsifiers so they are cheap to buy but offer no nutritional goodness.

So what is it your brain actually needs so that it can function at its best and having you thinking and feeling great?   Fish oil is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids that are key to good brain function.  But the real jewels for a mentally healthy diet I want to introduce you to are micronutrients.  Unlike their much bigger cousins’ macronutrients – carbs, proteins and fats – micronutrients are vitamins and minerals.

Minerals are the stable chemical compounds like calcium, phosphorus, magnesium and potassium and the trace minerals like zinc, copper, iodine and selenium.  Vitamins are organic compounds which are generally not made in the body, we have to consume them through plants.  There are about 15 essential vitamins with a variety of letters and numbers which you are probably familiar with. 

Most of us are not getting all the necessary micronutrients from real foods that is needed for a mentally healthy brain!  In a recent US study, 94 % of the US population did not even meet the daily requirement for Vitamin D, 89% for Vitamin E, 52% for magnesium, 44% for calcium, 43% for Vitamin A and 39% for Vitamin C.   Could this be the reason why so many of us are struggling with depression and anxiety?

So what is it about these micronutrient little gems that is so key to our mental health?  Well, this is where it gets a little complex because it is about understanding a bit of brain chemistry.

Micronutrients are key to our brain being able to make neurotransmitters such as serotonin, you probably know as the ‘happy hormone’.  It’s the chemical that contributes to our feelings of wellbeing, stabilizes our mood and plays a role in regulating our sleep, learning, memory and appetite.   Without it, we feel depressed.

Micronutrients are also vital in assisting the mitochondria, or energy organelles of your cells to make adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The citric acid cycle, also known as the Krebs cycle, produces ATP and is completely dependent on micronutrients to function.

Take a close look at how many micronutrients are involved in this cycle? Mind blowing.

But wait there’s more.

“In every organ of our body, including our brain, compounds or chemicals go through multiple conversions.  So from chemical A to chemical B.  It’s that simple.  And to make that conversion work, you need enzymes and cofactors.  Consider enzymes as the tools needed to assemble a car.  The enzymes are the tools used to build the car, but they are dependent upon having plenty of factory workers.  Without the workers, the assembly just won’t happen, but with more of them, assembly will go faster.  Minerals and vitamins are your factory workers.  So in other words, you need to feed your brain a steady supply of micronutrients to provide the co-factors needed for brain metabolism to happen.” (Rucklidge)

So let’s use our happy hormone as an example.  We need to consume the chemical tryptophan in order for it to convert into the neurotransmitter, serotonin.  And in order to make the conversation, we also need iron, phosphorus, calcium and vitamin B6.  For serotonin to breakdown we need niacin and riboflavin, as well as molybdenum.  Other steps required for the breakdown of tryptophan, requires calcium, potassium, iron, zinc, copper, thiamine, riboflavin and niacin.  So all up there are 11 micronutrients required for three steps in the chemical pathway of converting tryptophan to serotonin.  Complex isn’t it?  Makes you wonder what happens when one or more of these crucial ingredients is missing from our diet?  Is it no wonder so many of us are depressed when our diets are so poor?

These same types of complex metabolism processes are required to make all neurotransmitters. Dopamine, the pleasure hormone, which requires the amino acid tyrosine may have a role to play in the diagnosis of schizophrenia, ADHD and Parkinsons Disease.  GABA, the relaxing chemical, is responsible for slowing down the brain and central nervous system, creating a sense of calm, lowering anxiety and reducing mental and physical stress.  So the key message here is, we need a broad range of micronutrients in order to optimize brain metabolism and function, to operate at our physical and mental best.

So now you know why and how micronutrients are like gold for our mental health, you probably just want to know what specific foods you should be eating.  Well, here is one list.  It is considered to be the most micronutrient-rich anti-depressant foods, according to psychiatrists Laura LaChance and Drew Ramsey beginning with the most beneficial.

Animals Foods
Oyster
Liver and organ meats
Poultry giblets
Clam and muscles
Octopus
Crab
Goat
Tuna
Lobster
Rainbow Trout
Salmon
Herring
Emu
Snapper

Plant Foods
Watercress
Spinach
Mustard, turnip or beet greens
Lettuces
Swiss chard
Fresh herbs
Chicory greens
Pummelo
Peppers
Kale or collards
Pumpkin
Dandelion greens
Cauliflower
Kohlrabi
Red cabbage
Broccoli
Brussel sprouts
Paw Paw
Lemon
Strawberry

Other research has shown increasing foods high in tryptophan like milk, turkey, chicken and oats reduces depression risk, and maintains appropriate melatonin levels, which aids a good night’s sleep.

Research shows that the Mediterranean diet stacks up well against the criteria for better brain health, rich in vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids.  How would your diet stack up?  Are there some small changes you could make to improve your mental health, decrease the impact of stress on your body or reduce depression and anxiety?

I look forward to sharing more resources with you as we explore the role of nutrition in mental health.  If a holistic approach to mental health appeals to you, then you may like to check out my services.

References: 

Antidepressant foods: An Evidence-Based nutrient profiling system for depression, Laura LaChance & Drew Ramsey, 2018

The role of Vitamins and Minerals in Energy Metabolism and Well-Being, S. Huskisson, S. Maggini & M. Ruf, 2007

The Better Brain: The New Science of Treating, Anxiety, Depression, ADHD and Other Mental Health Disorders With Nutrition, Bonnie J Kaplan & Julia J Rucklidge, 2021

Mental Health and Nutrition, edx course, University of Canterbury, J. Rucklidge

‘Numbness’ and the Battle of Holding onto Something I Care About

I’ve been struggling with this thing I can only describe as ‘Numbness’.

Numbness can set in randomly for no reason at all.  Or if something happens that I feel sad about.  It can happen at home or at school.  It seems to like invading my weekends.

It’s like the light bulb goes out in me.   And I lose the thrill of doing anything.

Numbness can make me not feel anything.  I just feel tired and want to be alone in my room.  I’m even too tired to fight with my siblings.

Numbness takes away my motivation and makes me not want to do any of the stuff I really like.  It takes me away from being with my family. 

When numbness is around, I stop taking care of myself.  I stop showering.  Numbness is not something I can just wash off. 

Numbness throws me out of routine.  There’s no in between.  I either eat too little or eat too much, sleep too much or not enough.

It makes me lose all hope when it tries to tell me “Oh well, it is what it is”.  If I fail an assignment, no big deal.

There are things I try desperately to hold onto when I notice Numbness trying to take me away from the things I care about.  One of these things is LOGIC.  I can call on logical thinking to try to challenge the tricks and tactics of Numbness.

I like bingeing on my favourite TV shows.  This makes the light bulb really bright in me.  I feel happy and it influences me to do more of my favourite stuff.

Numbness has not been able to steal way my personality when it comes to kindness.  Even when I’m not at my best, I am still kind and friendly to others.  I still give a bright smile to people I care about.  I tell my friends to stay strong even when I am feeling worthless.  I know I’m a good person.  Even at my weakest, I still give advice to my friends, even if it’s a bit quicker than usual.  I will never say “I can’t help you”.  I believe it’s important to be friendly.  I hate the idea of making people sad for no reason.  If I snap at them, that hurts me.  I won’t let Numbness take away my goodness. 

If my favourite anime character Erza was fighting Numbness, she would never give up.  She is always thinking of her friends, she keeps fighting for them.  She reminds herself of what she is trying to protect.  She cares a lot about other people and gets strength from helping others.  There are moments when I feel accomplishment when I help other people.

I won’t go overboard trying to chew someone up.  That takes too much energy.  In the past one friend dragged the energy out of me.  When they are upset, I don’t put much energy in.  I don’t want to get drawn into their stuff.  I have to try to put boundaries in for myself. 

Erza wouldn’t let people walk all over her.  She would say “I’m not an inanimate object”.  She has good friends that don’t try to use her.  I want to be able to stand up for myself more.  If no-one is going to stand up for me, I need to do it for myself.  If there are people picking on me, I just ignore them and walk away.

Opportunity to be an Outsider Witness to this story

After reading this story, we invite you to write a message to send back to the author.  Here are some questions to guide your response.

  1. As you read this story, were there any words or phrases that caught your attention?  Which ones?
  2. When you read these words, what pictures came to your mind about the authors hopes for their life and what is important to them (ie. dreams, values and beliefs)?  Can you describe that picture?
  3. Is there something about your own life that helps you connect with this part of the story?  Can you share a story from your own experience that shows why this part of the story meant something to you?
  4. So what does it mean for you now, having read this story?  How have you been moved?  Where has this experience taken you to?

Please contact us with your response and we will forward your message to the author of this story.

Balancing in the Boat: What helps me get out of the dark messy waters of Depression

In this reflection, our author shares the skills and knowledge she holds for managing depression. This story emerged after we read together the story of Ebony which was published by Sarah Penwarden in her work with young women at a New Zealand High School. The reflection begins with an excerpt from Ebony’s story, followed by our author’s story.

EBONY’S FIGHT WITH DEPRESSION – in which she holds onto what she’s learned and what she knows
After many years of depression Ebony knew depression quite well. It was familiar; it could suck you in.
Depression was like a well; a daunting, dark and gloomy well. It was made out of grey stone, and had sides to it. When she was at the bottom of the well, she couldn’t climb out of it.
Ebony learned that you’ve just got to stop yourself reaching the bottom of the well. She‘d also learn that others can help you up. Some people can do this without even realising it. She knew from experience that once you were in the well, it was very hard to climb back up. She could fall
back down the well by letting one thing get to her.
There were times when Ebony could see herself perched on the edge of the well, sitting on the top; feeling unsteady, swaying, waiting for one gust of wind to push her off balance. All she could do was to try to fall back instead of forward; back onto the grass, rather than forward into the well. Even though falling back would be difficult and painful, it would be better than falling into the well. It was all relative.
Up on the grass, she had people there to break her fall, people to support her. That was the advice she wanted to give herself: fall back instead of forward. It will eventually get better. The grass was soft and there was shorter to fall. She just needed the courage to fall back.
This was difficult because the well was very familiar, and falling backwards involved complete trust. There was something slightly welcoming to her about the well. There was so much comfort in the
depression. No-one else seemed to understand that. But down in the well she knew would become accustomed to being alone in a cold, dark place. It felt safe down there; no-one could harm her. But then she would look up and see something beautiful – a bird, a butterfly, someone’s face, and this would give her determination to climb up.

I recently heard Ebony’s ‘Fight with Depression’ story.  I really liked this story and I connected with her experience of depression being like falling into a dark and gloomy well.  I noticed how hard Ebony tried to ‘fall back instead of forward’ into the well because once she had fallen into the well it was very hard to climb back up.  This got me thinking about how ‘falling back’ requires a lot of trust.  Trust that people will be there for you.  For me, trust is when you know you have people behind you and you have a history of supporting each other.  If you support them, then you know they will be there for you when you need it.  I’ve been there supporting my brother in the past and I know he will be there for me.  For me this is having a good balance in the relationship.  Balance is important when trying to get out of the well of depression.  Without balance, you might fall in.

For me, depression lurks in the deep, dark water underneath my boat.  It makes me not care if I fall in or not. When I feel myself slowing dipping into the darkness, life feels bland and exhausting.  Its hard to see life being any different.  It takes away my motivation to live and I all I feel is pain.  Sitting on the edge of that boat, I feel like I’ve lost myself.

Depression makes you withdraw from relationships with people and with life.  It takes me away from doing my assignments and stuffs up my routine.  It pulls you down into the dark water and disrupts the balance.  It makes me not bothered to ask for help.

There are some things that help to keep me in the boat.

Friends distract me from falling in.  The best kind of friends are ones that are fun, easy to talk to and don’t push subjects onto you.  They might gently make suggestions like how to get better sleep.  They are looking out for me.  They include me in things.  They have a good balance of logic and emotion.  When I lack logic in my thinking or cannot connect with myself emotionally, they help me out.  They read me well.  These friends have good balanced lives.  They are not fussed about the future or the past; they help me stay in the present moment.  I appreciate that they are not self centred.

Depression has me wanting to keep my emotional and dark thoughts to myself.  I’ve learnt that its healthier to project these thoughts onto other people like counsellors.  I also know I can talk to my brother.  I know that he has dealt with his own depressing emotions before.  We have dealt with tough situations together in the past and have been able to get things off our chest.  We developed a bond.  So recently when I found myself in the dark depressing waters, my mum got him on the phone.  My brother doesn’t undermine a problem.  He thinks all problems are on the same level, none is more important than another.  So even if my problems are different to his, he still values my experience.  That’s where trust comes in.  I can ‘fall back’ and trust my brother to be there for me.

Opportunity to be an Outsider Witness to this story

After reading this story, we invite you to write a message to send back to the author.  Here are some questions to guide your response.

  1. As you read this story, were there any words or phrases that caught your attention?  Which ones?
  2. When you read these words, what pictures came to your mind about the authors hopes for her life and what is important to her (ie. dreams, values and beliefs)?  Can you describe that picture?
  3. Is there something about your own life that helps you connect with this part of the story?  Can you share a story from your own experience that shows why this part of the story meant something to you?
  4. So what does it mean for you now, having read this story?  How have you been moved?  Where has this experience taken you to?

Please contact us with your response and we will forward your message to the author of this story.