I’m sure many of you have heard the term “you are what you eat”. Basically, it implies that if you eat good food, you will be fit and healthy. Likewise, eating bad food will leave you fat and unhealthy. A pretty straight forward concept, however, people tend to overlook one very important factor. The brain. I know, I had to learn this the hard way. I always associated healthy eating and exercise to physical fitness, as do most other people. But the brain is a part of the physical body as well, and therefore, so is your mental fitness.
During my early teenage years, I myself had developed poor eating and exercise habits. It was understandable I wasn’t in great shape, and neither was my mental health. I never made the connection between the two. At one point I became disgusted with my eating habits, and made a commitment to fix up my health. After some quick research, I came across “The UltraMind Solution” by Mark Hyman, M.D. This book really opened my eyes to the mind-body connection. As I investigated further, it became clear that my poor mental health was a byproduct of my poor physical health – and this is what I learnt on my journey to brain-recovery.
First of all, let’s consider the cases of “mental illness”. Some of the more common ones are depression, anxiety, poor memory, attention deficit disorder, autism and dementia. Over the years these cases have been increasing in numbers, alongside the increase of the processed foods industry. Processed foods are easier and cheaper to produce in large scale. Unfortunately, most processed foods have additives and preservatives that compromise the quality of the food’s natural state. This often leaves foods lacking in their original vitamin richness, ultimately leading to vitamin deficiencies in the body. The ideal alternative is to consume organic, whole foods who have their natural nutritional composition (although they’re typically more expensive).
Deficiency in vitamin B3, B6, folic acid, zinc and magnesium have all been linked to depression and anxiety. These vitamins are essential to the “methylation” process within the brain, a process by which the brain maintains its chemical balance. Vitamin D deficiency, which is surprisingly common to 75% of Americans, is associated with the production of particular hormones, which also plays a role in maintenance of brain chemistry. A lack in vitamin D is often linked to cases of anxiety.
The majority of the brain is made up of fatty acids, Omega-3 in particular. Omega-3 fats are called essential fats, because they are not manufactured inside the human body. It is essential they are consumed through an omega-3 rich diet which assists brain development for increased learning ability, focus, memory and better communication between brain cells.
Refined sugar, and other refined carbohydrates such as white bread, pasta and rice is also linked to depression and other mental illnesses. Apart from the lack of nutritional value, they use up the mood enhancing B vitamins which disrupt the balance of brain chemistry, and thus resulting in an instability of mood. Since most mental illness can be attributed to chemical imbalances in the brain, anti-depressants are designed to restore the chemical balance in the brain and eliminate depression. However, these drugs tend to fix the symptoms of depression rather than the cause, which will continuously return if there is a lack of essential vitamins and minerals.
I found the book “The 150 Healthiest Foods of Earth” by Jonny Bowden, Ph.D very useful to determine what foods contain the vitamins and minerals necessary for a healthy mind and body. It is a complete guide to the healthiest foods you can eat (and how to cook them) based on nutritional value, recommended intakes, and what health issues they help to solve.
There are of course many more vitamins and minerals that contribute to mental health and general well-being of the body. But you get the idea . Give your body what it needs and eliminate what it doesn’t – and the brain will follow. Considering my own experience, I noticed a rapid improvement in my mental state. After only a week of cutting out the junk and eating clean and whole foods, I became more mentally clear, focused and emotionally stable. It was quite fascinating seeing such distinct change in my mental fitness (not to mention physical fitness as well) as a result of simple dietary adjustments. Seeing the benefits of healthy eating (complimented by regular exercise of course) is by far one of the most valuable habits one can have.