Mental Health

Nutrition and brain health

Lesson 2

Why it matters and how to work towards positive, healthy food changes to increase your physical and mental health.

The Mind Diet

The MIND diet appeared to slow down the ageing of the brain by cognitive decline. Eating brain-healthy foods rich in vitamins and minerals keeps the brain younger.

It is a combination of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet.

DASH stands for “Dietary Approaches to Stopping Hypertension.” Hypertension is the clinical name of high blood pressure (HBP). High blood pressure is associated with heart attack, stroke and various forms of dementia, so lowering this by boosting “brain foods” that reduce inflammation can help.


Science is increasingly showing that a healthy gut is a healthy brain, as the vagus nerve connects the two (sometimes called the gut-brain axis). There is some research to suggest that cognitive diseases such as Parkinson’s can start in the gut and that poor gut health can also exacerbate mental ill-health.

Though the research is in its infancy, Japanese researchers have examined stool samples of patients with dementia and found significant changes in the levels of specific gut bacteria. It’s far too early to recommend certain strains of probiotics, but maintaining a diverse and healthy microbiome may go some way to protect our brains from decline.


Interest in these ‘smart drugs’ as they’re often referred to, has grown tremendously over the last decade. With benefits spanning everything from improved cognitive performance to neuroprotection, it’s easy to see why. 

Did you know, however, that there are both synthetic and natural variations of these brain-boosting supplements?

All you need to reap the rewards of this trend is a balanced diet.

Coffee and tea drinkers should rejoice because the most commonly used nootropic in the world is caffeine!

Its effects are so powerful that from 1984 to 2004 its use was limited in the Olympics by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Another firm favourite is L-theanine, a naturally occurring amino acid found in green tea.

Taking 50mg - the amount found in two cups of brewed tea - has been shown to increase alpha-waves in the brain, which are linked to creativity.

Eating Mediterranean style

When it comes to brain-boosting, the Mediterranean diet has the most well-established and impressive credentials. One study has suggested it can reduce our risk of stroke by 26%, and there is also evidence it can help to ward off cognitive decline.

The Mediterranean diet is made up of heaps of colourful veggies, as well as healthy portions of complex carbohydrates and fats (primarily lashings of extra virgin olive oil). The diet relies heavily on seafood, contains a moderate amount of lean poultry, and good-quality cheese, wine and red meat for special occasions.

Go easy on potatoes which raise blood sugar levels as fast as sugar. Fruits and vegetables provide many cancer risk reducing-nutrients that include lycopene (tomatoes), beta carotene (orange coloured fruits and vegetables which are cancer and cardio-protective), flavonoids and anti-oxidants.

Generally, the deeper coloured fruits like blueberries, bilberries, prunes and raspberries will offer higher levels of anti-oxidants.

Anti-oxidants, defined below, are believed to reduce the risk of heart disease, cancer and deterioration in brain function.

Broccoli, kale, spinach and cabbage are at the top of the vegetable health index, and the first three also contain lutein which helps protect eyes.

Shiitake mushrooms contain an immunostimulant.

Many health experts in the US Dept of Health are now recommending not just five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, but up to 9 pieces.

Excessive alcohol consumption is a crucial risk factor for Alzheimer’s as well as many other diseases. The Mediterraneans have mastered the art of moderate drinking by enjoying a glass of good-quality, antioxidant-packed red wine with dinner and leaving it at that.

The Mediterraneans are also known to top it all off with a rich, dark espresso, loaded with anti-inflammatories.

So, why is this diet so beneficial for our brains? 

Add plenty of colour to your meal, and the more you combine, the healthier it becomes. Mediterranean plates make plants a priority and are bursting with fruits and vegetables of all colours.

Large-scale studies have shown that people who consume one to two servings of leafy green veg everyday experience fewer memory problems than others.

Further, a survey of over 16,000 women showed that regularly enjoying flavonoid-rich berries reduces our risk of cognitive decline.

From blackberries to gooseberries, squash to leafy greens, we should all make an effort to hit and surpass our five-a-day targets with flying colours.

Even natural sugars trigger unhelpful inflammation and stress in the body. For best brain-boosting results, stick to low and medium glycemic fruits such as berries, apples, plums and grapefruits.

Healthy Fats

The Mediterranean diet features two primary sources of healthy fat: monounsaturated plant fat from extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), and omega-3 fatty acids from seafood. This oil is bursting with plant chemicals that can help to protect our brains from oxidative damage.

Vegetable Oils and Inflammation

“Vegetable” oils are oils extracted from seeds, and these include soybean oil, sunflower oil, canola oil, corn oil, and many, many others. We were taught that these oils were healthy for us because they are cholesterol-free, low in saturated fat and come from plants. Still, the truth is that they do not exist in nature, require industrial methods and often chemical solvents to extract.

They are also loaded with omega-6 fatty acids.

Omega-6 fatty acids promote inflammation and fight against the precious omega-3 fatty acids our brains need to develop correctly and function properly every day.

Vegetable oils are detected in nearly every processed food in the grocery store—baked goods, salad dressings, chips, snack bars, soups, sauces, fried foods, mayonnaise, etc.

Could it be that the rise of refined carbohydrates and refined oils in our modern diet helps to explain the skyrocketing prevalence of mental illness in our society?

We also know that many of the vitamins and minerals in vegetables are fat-soluble. This means that by adding a drizzle of virgin olive oil, we are giving our body everything it needs to get all the goodness from our greens.

Omega-3 fatty acids are one of the most vital pieces of the puzzle when it comes to brain health. There’s much evidence that two omega-3s (known as EPA and DHA) influence memory and cognitive health from the very first moments that we begin developing in our mother’s womb.

Unfortunately, we don’t know whether low-omega-6 diets or low-carb diets help with depression in later life because those studies haven’t been done yet. The only diet that has been systematically tested on people with depression has been the Mediterranean diet. Studies do show that a Mediterranean diet can improve symptoms of depression compared to the average “Western” diet.

Some believe that the Mediterranean diet is superior because it is high in potentially magical foods like olive oil or nuts—but this diet is also deficient in refined carbs and processed foods—could that be the secret sauce?

Our brains are extremely rich in fat. About two-thirds of the human brain is fat, and a full 20 per cent of that fat is an exceptional omega-3 fatty acid called docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA. 

The most rapid phase of development of the infant cortex takes place between the beginning of the third trimester of pregnancy and age 2. If enough DHA isn’t available to the baby during this critical 27-month window, it is unclear whether the consequences can be undone entirely. We do see lower levels of DHA in people diagnosed with psychiatric disorders, including those which manifest early in life, such as autistic spectrum disorders and ADHD.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (previously known as attention deficit disorder or ADD)

However, ADHD is thought to be the most common childhood mental health disorder, with estimates of its prevalence in children ranging from 5 to 11 per cent.

Some children and adults with ADHD find it difficult to concentrate on tasks at school or work and may daydream frequently. Children with ADHD may become disruptive, defiant, or have trouble getting along with parents, peers, or teachers.  Experts have debated whether treatment for ADHD should be primarily behavioural (therapy, attention training, increased play, more significant structure) or pharmacological.

Maximizing Omega-3s In Your Diet

Omega-3 is a group of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, most notably found in cold-water fish. Known as an essential fatty acid, omega plays a key role in everything from the immune response to brain function and metabolism, but it must be obtained from a food sources, because the body does not naturally create it.

Omegas exist in nature in three forms, one derived from land plants and two derived from marine sources.

The human body is inefficient at making these fatty acids. Therefore, everyone needs to consume these fats regularly. The recommended daily intake for adults is 1.6 grams for males and 1.1 grams for females, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Low levels of omega-3s are linked to poor memory and even depression.

Specific foods contain EPA and DHA, eicosapentaenoic acid, EPA, docosahexaenoic acid, DHA, these are found primarily in fish. Coldwater and fatty fish are higher in omega-3s, but here is a shortlist.

  • Salmon
  • Mackerel
  • Sardines
  • Tuna
  • Anchovies
  • Herring
  • Trout
  • Seaweed

And specific foods contain alpha-linolenic acid  (ALA). Plant foods like nuts and seeds are high in ALA, but some vegetables also contain it.

  • Flaxseed
  • Chia
  • Walnuts
  • Cashews
  • Soy foods
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Canola
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Spinach
  • Broccoli
  • Basil

  • Plant foods do not contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) or docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). The only omega-3 found in plant foods is alpha-linolenic (ALA), which is difficult for the human body to transform into EPA and DHA. Most studies estimate that less than 10 per cent of ALA, and in some cases as little as zero per cent, is converted into EPA and DHA in the human body.

    Eggs are very low in EPA and DHA. Eggs that are marketed as being higher in omega-3 are actually higher in Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Remember that this form of omega-3 is very difficult for the human body to use.

    Processed foods

    Processed foods are a recipe for disaster, as many of the ingredients can trigger ageing inflammation in the body. These include refined sugars, trans-fats and omega-6 fatty acids in the form of unsaturated vegetable oils.

    Omega-6 fats aren’t unhealthy in small quantities. In fact, we need minimal amounts to maintain healthy brain function. Once we exceed these levels, however, the fat is sent down an unfortunate metabolic pathway, creating a pro-inflammatory compound.

    When it comes to our essential fatty acids, balance is vital. While most people in the West currently eat an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 20:1, the golden ratio is 1:2.

    A Chiese idiom, 病从口入 Disease enters by the mouth and trouble comes out of the mouth.

    Increased fish intake

    Ditching processed foods and vegetable oils and upping our fish intake will go a long way to help. Vegetarians and vegans should consider algae omega-3 supplements, as the absorption from flax seeds and chia seeds is very poor.

    What seafood is higher in omega-3s?

    Most seafoods contain at least some EPA and DHA; shellfish and lean white fish are lower in omega-3s because they are lower in fat, in general. But mackerel and salmon are high in these fatty acids; a six-ounce serving of wild salmon contains some 900 mg of EPA and over 1100 mg of DHA.

    Farmed and wild fish have about the same amount of omega-3s. However, farmed fish is often higher in omega-6s because of what these fish are fed, and omega-6s work against omega-3s in the human body. Wild Salmon, tuna, herring and mackerel all add heart-protective Omega 3 oils. These polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFAs) have also been shown to help reduce inflammation of the airways and joints – and can therefore help to reduce the symptoms of asthma and arthritis, respectively.

    Sardines add Co-enzyme Q10, which is a powerful anti-oxidant and anti-ageing nutrient (plus calcium in tinned sardines). All types of fish offer high quality, low-calorie protein.

    Shrimps and prawns contain betaine which can help reduce blood levels of the toxic compound homocysteine – which in turn reduces the risk of heart attacks.

    Nutritionist Dale Pinnock recommends high-concentrated EPA and DHA supplementation for everyone, however. ‘Eating fish every day will get a little boring,’ he explains.

    Sustain blood sugar levels with a diet high in fibre, unprocessed carbohydrates, and healthy fats. Satiating whole grains, vegetables, and healthy fats can provide the foundations of a balanced diet, helping curb cravings for sweet convenience foods that most of us get tempted by.

    Eating little and often during the day, keeping well-hydrated, and exercising portion control, may also help to stabilise your blood sugar levels. Additionally, maintaining blood sugar levels promotes brain health, reducing blood sugar fluctuations that can impact your mood.

    Unstable blood sugars can negatively affect brain function, and for individuals with anxiety, depression, and panic disorders, maintaining blood sugar levels will be hugely beneficial to mental wellbeing.

    Managing anxiety

    Establish a routine that allows you to keep regular meal times, as this helps to prevent blood sugar dips and spikes, which may exacerbate anxiety.

    We all respond differently to specific foods, meaning there is no prototype for the perfect anti-anxiety diet.

    Keeping a food diary for two weeks will help you identify foods that positively and negatively affect your anxiety.

    A mostly plant-based diet, including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, with well-sourced animal or oily fish protein (if desired), is likely to support positive mental wellbeing. Alcohol, caffeine, fizzy drinks, refined sugars, processed and fried foods, may trigger anxiety, so be mindful of these.

    Protecting your brain with nutrition

    There is currently no cure for any form of dementia, but there are many things we can do to reduce our risk and keep our brains happy and healthy.  Our minds are the most metabolically active organs in our bodies, gobbling up over 20% of our total energy intake.

    Unsurprisingly then, yo-yo dieting and excessive calorie restriction (particularly in the form of low-fat diets) can have a damaging impact on this hungriest of organs.

    Smoking is another no-no as cigarettes are packed with toxins that cause oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain. A review of 14 studies has shown a statistically significant increased risk of dementia in current smokers compared to people who have never smoked.  The increased relative risk is believed to be between 30-50%.

    Traumatic head injury is another significant risk factor for Alzheimer’s and dementia. Rugby players are more likely than most to incur a concussive head injury during their workday and are therefore more likely to suffer from early-onset dementia.

    The same applies to other sports such as football, horse riding and ice hockey. Where possible, it’s smart to take every precaution to protect our heads from injury, such as wearing a helmet while out cycling.

    Studies have shown that an active lifestyle keeps our brains younger. We can benefit from enhanced circulation, pumping essential nutrients around the body and to the brain. Research also shows that exercise can help to reduce inflammation and fortify our defence against many diseases, including Alzheimer’s.

    We don’t have to push ourselves to our limits to enjoy these benefits, however. Studies show that if we commit to regular, moderate-intensity exercise, we can reap the same rewards. The key is consistency: finding something we enjoy enough to stay active for many years to come.

    Lack of regular physical activity can increase your risk of heart disease, becoming overweight or obese, and type 2 diabetes, which is all linked to a higher risk of dementia.

    B is for Brain

    Randomised placebo-controlled trials of people with mild cognitive impairments have shown that, over two years, high-dose B vitamin supplements help to maintain memory and halt brain decline.

    B vitamin deficiencies are more likely to occur in those aged 50+ as our metabolism slows, and we absorb less of this vital nutrient from our food. Digestive disorders, such as Crohn’s or coeliac disease can also inhibit absorption.

    Vegans can not get vitamin B12 from their diet and must supplement.

    If you feel you may be deficient, it’s worth asking your GP for a blood test.

    Adequate rest

    Studies have shown that, on average, women experience considerably higher levels of stress than men.

    This discrepancy is particularly prominent between the ages of 25 and 54 when women are likely to be juggling careers and family commitments, which may include both children and elderly parents. If we let our stress hormones get out of control, this can eat away at our protective estrogen stores - a process known as the Cortisol steal.

    Regularly enjoying green spaces, leaning on our support networks when we need to, and committing to moments of mindfulness and exercise have all been shown to reduce stress.

    Sleep is also essential for brain health. It’s the time when our body and brain have time to repair and restore. Maintaining good sleep hygiene can help to ensure we’re getting enough shut-eye.

    Each night this might include a wind-down routine, keeping blue-light-emitting gadgets out of the bedroom and, if possible, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day.

    If you or someone you love suffers terribly with insomnia and have tried the above strategies to no avail, it is essential to seek the advice of a specialist. We are not created to run without sleep, and your brain will thank you in the long run.

    Life long learning - You can teach an old dog new tricks

    Brain-imaging studies have shown that lifelong participation in cognitive activities such as reading newspapers and magazines (good for you!).

    Completing puzzles, or playing music can help to prevent the development of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Those with a higher educational level have also been shown to benefit from delayed onset of cognitive decline.

    We should all endeavour to be lifelong learners - following our curiosity as much as we are able and never being afraid to turn our hand to something new.