One of the oldest myths in psychology is that our minds are separate from our bodies. Today, however, there is an overwhelming amount of research that shows how our mental health is directly influenced by our brains and biology.
A big part of this influence comes from what we inherit from our genes, which we don’t have much control over. However, diet and exercise also play an important role in maintaining a healthy body and healthy mind – and those are things that we do have the power to change.
Here are some of the latest findings on the importance of diet and exercise in mental health, as well as some suggestions on how to improve these aspects of our lives.
What you eat affects your brain
Your brain needs nutrients and a healthy diet in order for it function at its best.
High-powered brain foods are rich in complex carbohydrates (your brain’s primary source of energy), fiber (which improves absorption of necessary vitamins and minerals), lean protein (for building new neurotransmitters), and unsaturated fats (especially omega-3 fatty acids, which improve cognitive abilities).
You can satisfy most of these nutritional needs by following a healthy diet rich in fresh vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and high-quality meat and fish. Psychology studies have found that a healthy diet that follows these core food groups can significantly lower the risk of psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression.
In contrast, an unhealthy diet contains a lot of processed foods and saturated fats, like potato chips, fried foods, chocolate, sweets, ice cream, and other junk food. These are not only associated with physical problems like heart disease and obesity, but have also shown in recent studies to lead to long-term problems in mental health.
The scientific journal PLoS One published a longitudinal study in 2011 showing that changes in diet correlated with changes in mental health. Among 2,000 participants, those who made healthy changes to their diet experienced improved mental health, while participants who made unhealthy changes to their diet experienced a deterioration in mental health. This is one of many empirical examples of how our diets affect our brains.
Key “brain foods” to keep in mind and why:
- Fish, eggs, and grass-fed meats. Several studies have shown a strong association between seafood consumption and mental health, especially mood disorders. This is because most fish (as well as eggs and grass-fed meat) contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to lower depression and anxiety levels, as well as improve memory and cognition. Limited research also suggests that omega-3 fatty acids may be effective in preventing psychotic symptoms in those with schizophrenia. In a six-month study of those with schizophrenia, those who were treated with E-EPA supplements (a concentrate of omega-3 fatty acids) showed a significant increase in grey and white matter, while those who took a placebo had shown a loss in cerebral tissue. Foods such as fish, eggs, and grass-fed meats are widely considered to play an important role in neural growth and healthy brain functioning.
- Nuts and seeds. Many nuts and seeds are also good sources of omega-3 fatty acids, especially butternuts, walnuts, chia seed, and flax. Nuts and seeds are also a great source of protein, fiber, and vitamins – all of which your brain needs to function most effectively. If you are vegan or vegetarian, nuts and seeds are essential for maintaining a healthy body and mind, since they provide a lot of the same nutritional value that can’t be found in other non-animal food products.
- Whole grains. Whole wheat breads, grains and pasta are great sources of complex carbohydrates, fiber, and B vitamins. Your brain needs a steady supply of carbohydrates, which your body breaks down into glucose, the brain’s main source of energy. When glucose is low, psychological processes that require mental effort (like self-control and conscious decision-making) are impaired. Therefore, it’s important that you give your brain the energy it needs to function effectively throughout the day. Without the right amount of complex carbohydrates, your brain will become fatigued and inefficient – it needs energy to function! Other excellent sources of complex carbohydrates include beans, legumes, fruits, and vegetables.
- Many fruits and vegetables. Many fruits and vegetables contain loads of essential vitamins, dietary fibers, carbohydrates, and antioxidants which improve brain function. Blueberries and strawberries, for example, have shown to improve memory and cognition by cleaning out toxins in the brain that cause age-related memory loss and mental decline. Most fruits and vegetables play an important role in maintaining a healthy and balanced diet. It is therefore preferred that you eat a variety of different fruits and vegetables throughout your day, rather than just increasing the quantity of any one specific fruit.
- Water. Up to 70% of our brains are water. Drinking water is therefore essential for keeping our bodies and brains hydrated. When we don’t get enough water each day, this can lead to long-term declines in brain functioning, including stress and fatigue. Water is key for delivering nutrients to our brains, keeping them healthy, as well as eliminating toxins.
- Coffee or tea. Studies show that a moderate amount of caffeine can be beneficial toward brain health. For example, one study found that coffee can slow down dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, as well as improve cognitive functioning and alertness. Similar effects have been found in green tea, which also includes powerful antioxidants that help clean out the brain. Some research has also suggested that caffeine can mimic some of the effects of antidepressants.
There’s no conclusive research on what exactly the “best diet” is for mental health. In all likelihood, there is probably no such thing, as it probably depends on many factors including each individual’s biochemistry and the combination of foods they consume as a whole.
That being said, I think we all have an intuitive sense of what makes “healthy” foods and what makes “unhealthy” foods. The truth is most of us probably don’t need to read a book on nutrition to begin making more health-conscious choices. When we choose to have that piece of cake while watching our favorite TV show, instead of the bowl of salad, we know deep-down that we are choosing the less healthy option.
So while some of these health suggestions may seem like commonsense, please remember that the bigger point here is that what we choose to eat matters to our brains and mental health. Therefore, maintaining a healthy diet plays a significant role in also keeping our brains working properly.
Please talk with your doctor and do more research before making any dramatic changes to your diet.
Exercise improves mental health and cognitive ability
Over the past decade, research has shown that exercise is just as important to our mental health as maintaining a balanced diet. In a 2011 issue of the Journal of Applied Physiology, researchers did a meta-analysis of over 100 studies looking into the effects of aerobic exercise and strength training on mental health and cognitive ability.
One finding was that exercise during childhood led to a faster rate of cognitive development. Children who were physically inactive tended to perform worse on academic exams and neuropsychological tests, while children who exercised showed improvements in memory, attention, and decision-making.
This was also found to be true in younger and older adults. According to researchers, there is solid evidence that exercise can benefit a variety of executive functions, including multi-tasking, planning, and self-control. Neuroscientists have also done fMRI scans in humans and rats showing that exercise can lead to increases in brain volume, specifically in areas of the brain associated with cognition and memory.
Exercise has also proven to be an effective treatment for several mental disorders. One study published in a 2011 issue of the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that exercise can substitute as a second medication for those with depression. Often depressed patients begin to feel better when they receive their first medication, but they don’t feel completely well. In the past, psychiatrists have prescribed a second medication, but now research shows that prescribing exercise instead can be just as, if not more effective.
One of the reasons exercise may help alleviate depression is because it releases neurotransmitters like endorphins, serotonin, and anandamide, which are known to elevate mood and feelings of pleasure. This experience is sometimes referred to as “runner’s high,” and these biochemical levels are known to stay elevated in the body for up to several weeks at a time, contributing to improvements in happiness and increased self-esteem.
Exercise has also been known to increase neural growth and neuroplasticity, which helps protect against neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and other age-related declines in mental health and cognitive ability.
Minimize alcohol, cigarettes, and drug use
The other aspect of our physical and mental health are dangerous habits that include excessive alcohol, cigarettes, and drug use. In many ways, substance abuse is a mental illness all on its own. It’s also true, however, that many people who engage in substance abuse can develop other brain abnormalities and mental illnesses later in life, such as alcohol-induced brain damage.
Of course, some drugs can be taken in moderation and not have any adverse effects on your physical or mental health. Every now and then a study comes out showing how the occasional glass of wine or marijuana joint can actually improve certain aspects of our physical and mental health. But even so, it’s important to keep moderation in mind at all times.
There are also some drugs that are probably best avoided altogether. Hard drugs like heroin and cocaine often serve very little long-term benefit physically or mentally (if at all), and the costs just far outweigh the gains.
Make a conscious choice to be smarter about drugs. I can’t realistically tell everyone to avoid alcohol or smoking altogether, but I think it’s wise to do these things with some caution and mindfulness. Because like all things that you consume into your body, it’s going to affect your brain and mental health in some way.
Try one small habit change – just for this week
I’ve now covered 3 different aspects of your physical and mental health that you could begin improving on today if you really wanted to.
Of course, I understand that making these changes can seem daunting at first. There’s a lot to chew on in this article, and you certainly can’t transform yourself overnight. By taking small steps, however, you can begin to make changes in the long-term.
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