Brain Food – Boosting Mood, Memory and Motivation
With exam season looming, this is a good time for a mental health check so that you can maximise your motivation, concentration and focus. There’s no doubt that the right diet can have a major impact on our brain and its performance, but which are the best foods to focus on?
Here are a few tips to help make sure that you stay on top of your game and get the best possible results.
SUPPORT YOUR DIGESTION
WHY? The digestive tract contains a complex network of about 100 million nerves, known as this enteric nervous system. This has a direct impact on your mood and your behaviour which is why scientists often refer to the gut as the ‘second brain’. About 95% of the ‘good mood’ neurotransmitter serotonin is produced in the gut and a deficiency can have a direct impact on well-being, resulting in symptoms such as low mood, anxiety and poor sleep. If that’s the case, then making sure the production factory is in good working order has to make sense, especially if you struggle with IBS-type symptoms such as bloating or inconsistent bowel movements.
WHAT? Ensuring a healthy balance of gut bacteria is essential; not only does this facilitate optimum digestion but it helps to support the production of serotonin. Make sure your diet is rich in fibre, which promotes ‘friendly’ bacteria as well as ensuring the healthy formation and easy passage of stools. Steer clear of sugary foods and refined carbohydrate which can increase levels of ‘unfriendly’ bacteria. A daily dose of plain yoghurt is a natural source of beneficial bacteria, but beware of so-called ‘probiotic’ yoghurt drinks or fruit yoghurts, as these can be high in sugar which is counter-productive.
HOW? The best sources of fibre are wholegrain foods and vegetables. A quick and easy way to boost your fibre intake is to swap to the ‘brown’ version of everything: wholemeal bread, brown rice, whole-wheat pasta. Aim for a high fibre morning cereal – something that contains around 5g of fibre per 50g serving. Make sure your lunchtime sandwich contains plenty of salad, snack on vegetables such as carrots with hummus and add an extra portion of vegetables to your dinner to boost your daily intake.
BOOST B VITAMINS
WHY? If you lack motivation and feel lethargic and a bit low, then B vitamins might be the issue, as they’re vital links in the chain reaction of energy production. They also play an essential role in converting nutrients into serotonin. All the B vitamins are important, as they work in synergy, targeting different areas. For example, a deficiency in thiamine (vitamin B1) can cause emotional disturbances, a lack of niacin (vitamin B3) has been directly associated with depression and low levels of vitamin B12 can lead to low mood, irritability and poor memory.
WHAT? Vegetables are a great source of many of the different B vitamins, but be careful how you cook them. B vitamins are water soluble, so all the goodness can end up in the water, if you’re not careful. Steaming is a much better option, or soups and casseroles can help to capture the vitamins in the juice. Vitamin B12 is only found naturally in animal sources, such as meat, fish or eggs, which is a consideration for vegans. Stress, alcohol and the oral contraceptive pill can all deplete B vitamins, so you may need to factor in an extra boost if any of these apply to you
HOW? Make sure that your 5-a-day is skewed 4:1 in favour of vegetables if you want to boost B vitamin levels. Brown rice is another excellent source, but if this isn’t popular at home, you could always add some to a lunchtime salad instead. Egg yolk, meat and fish are all good sources of vitamin B3. Some foods, such as Marmite and certain breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamin B12 for vegans who prefer not to take supplements.
WHY? Feeling jittery and anxious? Tense, nervous headache? Tight neck and shoulders? Sluggish bowel? All of these can really impact your mood, so it could be time to look at your magnesium levels. Magnesium regulates the nervous system and well as being responsible for muscle contraction and relaxation, so a deficiency can cause a range of symptoms from migraine, by constricting the blood vessels in the brain, to constipation by inhibiting peristalsis, the contraction of muscles that moves stools through the gut. Low levels of magnesium can also result in anxiety and panic attacks and can inhibit the production of serotonin.
WHAT? Leafy green vegetables, almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds and pulses are all good sources of magnesium, as well as whole-grain foods. Another great way to boost your magnesium levels is to throw a couple of handfuls of Epsom Salts (magnesium sulphate) into the bath, as this will absorb through the skin relaxing your muscles and promoting a restful night’s sleep. It’s the perfect way to end a stressful day and to make sure you’re on top of your game for the next challenge.
A daily dose of leafy green vegetables is the way to go, but if you get bored of eating your greens, you could try juicing spinach, kale or watercress some apple or pineapple to sweeten it, as it’s a good way to rack up the magnesium. A sprinkling of pumpkin seeds on your breakfast cereal, soup or salad is a smart move, or you could try a magnesium double-whammy of cashew butter on a brown rice cracker.
VITAMIN D IS VITAL
WHY? If you found last winter long and painful, then you may need to think about vitamin D. It’s been hitting the headlines a lot in the past year, as the research has expanded way beyond the well-documented benefits of healthy bones and a number of studies have linked a deficiency to a wide range of other conditions, such as diabetes, TB and multiple sclerosis. There is also a growing school of thought that vitamin D plays a key role in mental health and may be linked to seasonal affective disorder, so this could explain why you’ve been struggling with low mood in recent months.
WHAT? The principle source of vitamin D is sunlight, as it is synthesised by the body through exposure to sunshine, so by springtime a large proportion of the UK population is likely to be deficient,. If you have to wait until the summer holidays to head overseas for a serious blast of sun, or if you have fair skin and tend to avoid sun exposure, then you may wish to consider supplementation. A quick blood test at your local surgery would identify any deficiency and your GP can advise on next steps.
HOW? It’s not easy to source vitamin D from food – not many foods actually contain it and where you can find it, the quantities are fairly small. The best source tends to be fresh oily fish, such as salmon or sardines. It can also be found in dairy products, egg yolk, shitake mushrooms and offal, such as liver or kidney.
NOURISH YOUR NEUROTRANSMITTERS
WHY? Serotonin is not the only neurotransmitter that improves your mood and banishes the blues. Adrenaline, noradrenaline and dopamine all have the feel-good factor and help to improve motivation, concentration and memory, as well as contributing to stress management. Low levels of these neurotransmitters can leave you feeling lethargic, distracted and demotivated. The body uses amino acids which are found in protein foods to generate neurotransmitters, so it’s important to make sure that your diet contains adequate amounts of protein so that all the building blocks are there.
WHAT? Good quality protein should form part of every meal or snack, but many of us tend to save it for the evening meal, which simply isn’t giving our body enough material to work with. Good sources of protein include meat, fish, eggs, lentils, chick peas (houmous), beans, dairy, quinoa nuts and seeds. Don’t neglect protein at breakfast time as it will help to kick-start your brain and make sure that a quarter of the overall meal at lunch and dinner consists of protein.
HOW? An egg is a great way to start the day, but not so practical if you’re rushing off to work. Try adding a tablespoon of mixed seeds, such as pumpkin, sunflower and flaxseed to your morning cereal or porridge for a good helping of protein, or have protein-rich peanut or almond butter with your toast. Make sure your lunchtime salad or soup includes plenty of lean meat, fish, lentils or beans, so that you’re not just eating vegetables. Snack on raw almonds or add a generous dollop of houmous to an oatcake. That way you’re not relying on dinner to be your only source of protein.
If you’re wondering what to eat when you’re out and about, take a look at my new book, The Right Bite, which is full of handy advice covering the coffee bar, the pub, lunch on the go and lots more.