Nutritional psychiatry is the study of how food impacts brain function. Ultimately, this field looks at the connection between what you eat and your brain structure and function, and how you feel emotionally.
The human brain is an organ that is constantly working to keep your body functioning optimally. It is the body’s master organ; it is constantly on, taking in what the body is doing right now and sending out signals to help the body adjust accordingly. For example, the hypothalamus (located in the base of the brain) regulates temperature. It receives information from the temperature sensors in the skin and other areas of the body and sends out signals to the body telling it how to respond. If it senses cold, it will tell the muscles to contract and release (causing shivering) which helps to create body heat, thus raising body temperature.
This is only one example of how your brain is constantly orchestrating your body to keep it as balanced and healthy as possible, all day every day. This type of work requires massive amounts of fuel. The brain typically burns a few hundred calories per day, and requires a myriad of nutrients to execute its functions. This is where diet comes in — the foods we eat (or do not eat) have a massive impact on how well the brain functions, in part via gut function.
The gastrointestinal tract and the brain are intimately connected. This connection is commonly referred to as the mind-gut connection. The digestive organs are what interface with the foods we eat; they break down foods, absorb nutrients and remove waste. Eating a diet devoid of nutrients and high in processed ingredients will cause damage to the gut, causing inflammation and the destruction of good bacteria while supporting the proliferation of bad bacteria.
The human digestive tract is lined with millions of neurons, which are a part of your neurological system and directly connect with the brain. These neutrons produce substances like serotonin, a feel good neurotransmitter that regulates your mood, sleep and appetite. Moreover, the gut is home to billions of good bacteria, all of which play a role in your overall health and communicate with the body’s nerves and brain. If this ecosystem is imbalanced or the gut cells and neurons are damaged, this can cause issues in neurological health. Numerous studies have concluded that there is a definitive connection between the consumption of refined sugars and an impairment in brain function. There is also a connection between refined sugar consumption and worsening of mood disorders like depression. Depression risk has shown to decrease by 25 to 35% in those who consume traditional diets like the Mediterranean diet or traditional Japanese diet, as compared to a typical “Western” diet.
So how do we support brain function with food? Flooding the body with the right nutrients daily is imperative for a healthy brain. Consuming real, whole foods that are as close to their natural form as possible is the best way to support this vital organ. Foods that do not require an ingredient list and are fresh, with an expiry date are a great place to start. Consuming foods from each macronutrient group — proteins, fats, and carbohydrates — is very important, as each plays a unique role in supporting a healthy brain (and healthy gut). Also, consider micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants) which are incredibly important to keep the gut and brain well fuelled, free of waste, and low in inflammation. A variety of fruits and vegetables, organic animal meats and eggs are great sources of these nutrients. One diet that comes up again and again in research on supporting brain and overall health is the Mediterranean diet. This is a great diet to look into if you require further guidance.
Minimising the consumption of processed foods and refined sugars is absolutely necessary for a healthy gut and to support and preserve brain health now and as we age. Limiting sweeteners, sugar, refined flour, preservatives, and poor quality oils is a good place to start. Unfortunately once these ingredients inflame the gut, and once they are metabolised and enter the brain, the brain may have trouble eliminating the waste, causing concern over time. Habits like drinking alcohol also cause harm to the gut and brain and should be limited. Being mindful of how you are eating your foods (in what order) can also keep the blood sugar steady throughout the day and can have a big impact on your brain health and general mood. You can see previous article called Controlling Blood Sugar with Food Sequencing for further details.
As always, speak to your doctor for further guidance on supporting your brain health. Supplementation can be a helpful tool to support brain function, but should always be done under the supervision of a licensed health care provider. You cannot supplement your way out of a poor diet, especially when it comes to brain health, so diet is always the recommended place to start.