The Happy Brain™ - How Your Food Rules Your Mood by Jane Hutton, Holistic Functional Nutritionist
The brain is an incredible organ, controlling everything we do, whether we’re conscious of its workings or not. The flip side is that everything we experience, feel and do (or don’t do) affects our brain, which in turn affects our physical, mental and emotional well being.
A number of situations or factors can leave us vulnerable to imbalances and deficiencies which can then wreak havoc, physically, mentally and emotionally. Physical causes upset brain function; emotional causes can domino on to physical manifestations, such as deficient diet or compromised use of nutrient intake, disrupting the brain’s delicate balance. Ultimately, looking after our mood starts with our food.
We reap what we sow in the mood food department. It’s not just about major mental health disruption, it’s about keeping calm and carrying on; concentration and motivation; sharp focus and memory maintenance. These factors are an important part of functional nutrition considerations for mental health: specific nutritional support (for stress, depression or anxiety), balanced blood sugar levels, boosting digestion and absorption of nutrients, ensuring a strong microbiome, tackling food and environmental allergies or sensitivities, and eliminating toxins like heavy metals.
We need to remember too that there are non-nutritional factors which can contribute to physical effects on brain function, mood and motivation, such as genetics and individual biochemistry, and how you perceive or deal with what life throws at you.
When life is frantic, and demands on our time and energy are high, it’s easy to feel that we want the quickest, easiest possible route to fuelling our bodies. Obviously, the more nutrient-rich, unprocessed and freshly-prepared our food is, the more we benefit and support our body systems. Realistically though, there are likely to be times that we take the easy road - in this case, learning to make informed choices can reduce the impact of less than ideal food choices.
What to eat?
Stabilising blood sugar levels, and optimising nutrient content and availability, are the main goals when thinking about how to nourish your brain. Eating a wide range of fruits and vegetables, especially including a ‘rainbow’ of colours daily, will give your body the best spectrum of vitamins, minerals, micro nutrients and co-factors necessary for the production of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals essential for proper brain function) such as serotonin, GABA and dopamine.
Essential fats in the right ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 is absolutely crucial, as is protein from sources our bodies can use. Vegan diets might be popular, but I see many vegans whose mental health is suffering because they did not realise that the proteins in animal products and plants are essentially differently treated by our bodies. Easily remedied, but frequently overlooked nonetheless.
It’s also crucial for the brain to have what it needs to maintain and repair itself, and for hormonal systems and energy release to be able to respond to the demands placed on us in our daily lives. Eating breakfast, and then regularly throughout the day is a must, as is staying hydrated with pure water, herbal teas and diluted veg/fruit juices.
An example of a good daily eating plan goes like this:
Breakfast – base around fruit/yogurt/ flax sprinkle/nuts; or porridge with flax sprinkle/seeds; or eggs and a carb source like pitta /soda bread plus a layer of spinach.
Morning snack – oat cakes with humous, tzatziki, a slice of lean meat, nut butter or guacamole, with cherry tomatoes and cucumber slices.
Lunch – wrap or pitta with veg, salad and protein filling - this could be lean meat, tuna, eggs (if not had for breakfast), cheese; or a bean/chickpea/ couscous/rice/ salad with veg and a protein source (feta, tuna, chicken, egg,) Another option is soup with pitta or soda bread. All of these can be relatively easy to take to work, or cook up batches to use through the week.
Afternoon snack – quinoa cookie/fruity protein bar (homemade) or fruit with a handful of seeds and nuts.
Dinner – Good quality protein source with organic brown rice/pulses/noodles and a wide variety of veg. Fruit.
Experimenting with recipes can be creative, fun, therapeutic, and something that all the family can play a part in. Getting children involved in food and its magical conversion into a delicious, satisfying, nutritious meal can be a great way to teach children about healthy eating, and give them skills they’ll need for later life. Pack the herbs into your food too - they don’t just help add flavour to food, they also have a number of health benefits.
Getting into the kitchen is non-negotiable for the happiest brain, so here’s a recipe to get you started -
Fruit and Choc Chip Protein Bars
375g flaked almonds
250g pecans and/or walnuts, lightly toasted
75g ground flaxseed
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
150g dried cranberries and/or blueberries
approximately 7-8 large medjool dates, pitted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon honey
4-5 tablespoons water
75g good quality dark chocolate, chopped into pieces
Place almonds, pecans, ground flax, cinnamon, cranberries, dates, blueberries, and vanilla extract in a food processor and process until well mixed. Then pulse in honey and 3 tablespoons of water. You want the mixture to form into a ball. If it’s not doing so after the 3 tablespoons of water, add in additional water and process until the mixture begins to form a ball. Remove from food processor and incorporate the chocolate chips. Then press into a square tin or dish. Place in refrigerator for an hour and then slice into bars and serve. Bars are best kept in the refrigerator. Bars can also be wrapped individually and placed in an airtight container in the freezer.
Bringing it all together......
Of course, this is the ideal, and we all know that sticking rigidly to an eating plan may not always be practical. Real life has to leave room for meals out, holidays, parties, and sometimes just sheer exhaustion! However, the important thing to remember is that a strong brain and body will not suffer from the occasional deviation, and being self aware means that you know what to do and when. Above all, feeling balanced, vibrant and full of vitality means hat you won’t want to go back!
Give yourself and your brain the best possible help by sticking to these principles as far as possible, keeping physical, emotional and mental elements in balance:
• prioritising good quality food;
• maintaining regular eating patterns;
• including protein, carbohydrate and healthy fats in each meal;
• staying hydrated; reducing exposure to chemicals/toxins/pesticides;
• making time for rest and relaxation in whatever form suits you;
• being aware of changes in your emotional state, and dealing with situations that cause you stress;
• taking part in pastimes which allow you to let off steam and feel positive;
• investing in relationships and friendships in which you can connect with those who allow you to talk, laugh and put problems in perspective.
• Above all, take care of yourself. When your brain is happy, you’re happy.........