There are two types of carbohydrates. They are simple and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates are easily digestible. Examples of simple carbohydrates include glucose, fructose which is found in abundance in fruits, and sucrose which is sugar. Complex carbohydrates are polysaccharides and are harder to digest. Some examples of complex carbohydrates include grains, lentils, beans and vegetables.
Complex carbohydrates are best
Carbohydrates are better than proteins and fats for brain food because they do not produce toxic byproducts when they are metabolized. Thus, carbohydrates should constitute about 55 to 60 % of our daily food consumption. Besides, most of our carbohydrate intake should be in the form of complex carbohydrate, like legumes, lentils, beans and other vegetables. Complex carbohydrates are best because of the following reasons:
- Processed or refined carbohydrates usually have a very high sugar concentration which is bad for health. In the process of refining the carbohydrates, the other nutrients in the food are usually destroyed.
- Complex carbohydrates provide a slow release of glucose into the circulation which results in a more stable blood level. The rate at which a food raises the level of blood glucose can be worked out on a scale called the glycaemic index. Glucose is given a score of 100 and other foods are compared in relation to this. So, a food with a score of 50 raises the blood sugar level at half the rate of glucose. Generally, foods with a score of less than 50 are better for one’s health.
The problems with refined carbohydrates and sugar
Refined carbohydrates and sugar can result in unstable blood glucose level called disglycaemia. The symptoms of disglycaemia include:
- Concentration difficulty
- Excessive sweating
- Digestive problems
- Poor memory
Excessive sugar and refined carbohydrates can also lead to insulin resistance and eventually diabetes mellitus.
When sugar and refined carbohydrates are metabolized, excessive vitamins and minerals are used up which could otherwise be used to build up one’s health.
Refined carbohydrates and sugar react with the proteins in the brain and nervous system which can result in the thickening of the cell membranes. As a result, the communication between the cells is impaired.
High sugar consumption is linked to poor mental health. Sugar is a compound that is oxidized easily. Excessive amount of sugar often auto-oxidizes to become free radicals which cause tissue, and eventually organ damage to our bodies. Excessive refined carbohydrates and sugar intake may predispose a person to conditions such as:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
- Aggressive behaviour
The importance of maintaining a stable blood glucose level
The vicious cycle of a low blood glucose level can be illustrated by the following diagram:
Sufferers of depression, anxiety, attention hyperactivity disorder and eating disorders who use food to deal with their psychological problems are often trapped in the vicious cycle of unstable blood glucose level and the resultant feelings of stress and low self esteem.
The followings are some good suggestions about slow-releasing complex carbohydrates which are essential for optimal psychological health:
- Eat whole grains, lentils, beans, nuts, seeds, fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Avoid refined, white and overcooked foods.
- Eat five or more servings of fresh fruits and vegetables each day. Choose dark green vegetables. Choose fruits and vegetables with red, yellow and orange colours.
- Avoid sugar and foods with added sugar.
- Dilute fruit juices and avoid soft drinks.
- Eat starchy foods such as potato, bread, pasta and rice with fish, lentils, beans or bean curd to reduce the glycaemic index of the foods.
- Eat brown rice instead of white rice, wholemeal bread instead of white bread and wholemeal spaghetti instead of ordinary ones.
Many people from industrialized and developed nations are obsessed with fats. We are preoccupied with low fat and fat free foods. Some may be so concerned with not becoming fat that they develop eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. On the other hand, some young people have such a poor diet that they develop childhood obesity.
Our brains consist of 60% fat. Research shows that the amount and type of fat one consumes has a profound effect on one’s mental and psychological health. So, fat has an influence on our cognitive, emotional and behavioural functions. The brain and nervous system need the following fats to function:
- Saturated fats such as animal fats, coconut oil, palm oil and dairy products
- Monounsaturated fats such as olive oil, canola oil, nuts and avocado
- Cholesterol such as meat, dairy products, coconut, palm and shell fish
- Essential fats such as Omega 3 fat, especially EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and Omega 6 fat, especially GLA (gamma-linolenic acid) and AA (arachidonic acid)
How much fat to eat
The amount and type of fat that one should consume to maintain optimal health is illustrated as follows:
- Total fat intake should constitute 25% of the daily total calories
- Of these, the proportions of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats should be about 5%, 8% and 12% respectively
- Of the polyunsaturated fats, the ratio between Omega 3 and Omega 6 fats should be 3:1
Sadly, research shows that most people living in an affluent, industrialized and developed nation consume about 40% of fat as their daily total calorie intake and most of these are in the form of saturated fat. Since Omega 3 fat is more unsaturated than Omega 6 fat, it is more susceptible to damage by cooking and processing. As a result, most modern day diet is deficiency in Omega 3 fat. The ration between Omega 3 and 6 fats is more likely to be in the vicinity of 1:20 instead of 3:1.
Sources of the essential fats
Omega 3 fat is found in linseed, hemp, pumpkin, walnut and oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, anchovies and tuna.
Omega 6 fat is found in corn, safflower, sunflower, sesame, evening primrose oil, blackcurrant seed and borage oil.
The importance of the essential fats
Essential fats are necessary for 5 functions of the body:
- Proper functioning of the cell membrane
- Production of prostaglandins
- Brain function
- Reduction of LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol
- Immune function
Cell membrane function
The cell membrane is made up of 75% fat, of which one third is essential fats. The integrity of the cell membrane is important for optimal health. The cell membrane contains ion channels which allow the passage of minerals and chemicals into the cells. It also contains many receptor sites which allow the binding of different hormones and neurotransmitters which act as messengers carrying information from one cell to another. When the cell membrane is healthy, the ion channels and receptors will function properly which results in optimal functions of the organ system. Sufficient intake of essential fats will ensure and maintain the health of the cell membrane.
Production of prostaglandins
Prostaglandins are a group of physiologically potent compounds that are formed from essential fats. They are important for the proper functioning of the nervous system, circulation, reproductive system and metabolism. Omega 3 fat produces a type of prostaglandin called prostacyclin which reduces the stickiness of the blood platelets, thins the blood and dilates the blood vessels. As a result, it prevents clot formation and improves circulation. Thus, Omega 3 fat protects against heart and brain diseases such as a heart attack or stroke.
Essential fats are vital for brain health. Of all the tissues in the body, the brain has the highest amount of Omega 6 fat. DHA plays an important role in the development of the brain and nerve cells. Deficiency in Omega 3 fat has been linked to depression and Alzheimer’s disease. Research also shows that Omega 6 fat improves the symptoms of schizophrenia and memory loss of Alzheimer’s disease.
Reduction of LDL cholesterol
LDL cholesterol causes heart and brain diseases by forming plaques on the blood vessel wall. This results in narrowing of the blood vessels and reduction of blood flow and oxygen to the heart and brain. A diet high in Omega 3 fat helps to lower the level of LDL cholesterol in the body, thus reducing the chance of heart and brain diseases.
Omega 3 fat acts an anti-inflammatory agent. Thus, it helps in all kinds of inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, vasculitis and other autoimmune diseases. Omega 3 fat also helps to stabilize the cholesterol plaques that are formed in the vessel walls of the heart and the brain. After the LDL cholesterol is deposited in the blood vessel wall, certain white blood cells called macrophages start to ingest the oxidized LDL cholesterol. These macrophages coalesce to form fatty plaque that becomes bigger and trigger an inflammatory response in the body. Consequently, other white blood cells attack the lining of the blood vessel wall, resulting in sudden rupture of the plaque. This gives rise to heart attack, stroke and sudden death. Omega 3 fat is beneficial in reducing the initial risk of atherosclerosis and preventing the subsequent risk of rupture of the fatty plaque.
Hydrogenated fats are synthetic fats which are present in processed and fast foods. Chemical hydrogenation of unsaturated fats changes them into trans fatty acids which prevent the food from being oxidized, thus ensuring a longer shelf life. Many foods that are supposed to be low in cholesterol and saturated fats are high in trans fats. Research shows that trans fats are more sinister to our health than saturated fats. Trans fats damage our health through the following actions:
- They make the cell membrane more rigid, thus affecting the proper functioning of the ion channels and the receptor sites
- They elevate the level of LDL cholesterol in the body
- They decrease the level of HDL (high density lipoprotein) cholesterol which is protective against heart disease
- They affect the normal metabolism of Omega 3 fat which is essential for good health
- Minimize the intake of fried food, processed food and saturated fat from meat and dairy products.
- Eat oily fish at least three times a week
- Eat 10 to 15 nuts a day (preferably walnuts, almonds and macadamias)
- Eat linseed with breakfast cereal
- Take 2000mg to 3000mg fish oil capsules daily which contain EPA and DHA
- Use extra virgin olive oil or canola oil for cooking
- Make your own salad dressing by mixing cold pressed seed oil with vinegar
- Avoid foods with hydrogenated trans fats
The human brain is like a switch board which consists of interconnecting life wires with the insulation around them to prevent the short circuiting of messages. The nerve cells in the brain are the wires which carry messages by discharging electrical impulses. The insulation is the myelin sheathes which are made of phospholipids. When you look at the human brain with the naked eyes, the nerve cells are gray in color and the myelin white.
There are two kinds of phospholipids. They are phosphatidyl choline and phosphatidyl serine. Phospholipids are important for:
- Maintenance and enhancement of mood
- Enhancement of mental performance
- Protection of age-related memory decline
- Protection against Alzheimer’s disease
Even though our bodies can make phospholipids, it is good to eat foods that are rich in phospholipids. Organ meats and eggs are rich in phospholipids. Whilst each egg contains about 200mg of cholesterol, it is a rich source of protein, monounsaturated fat and essential fats. Chickens which feed on Omega 3 foods such as flax seeds produce eggs that are richer in Omega 3 fat. If you avoid foods which have a high trans fat content, the cholesterol in the eggs should not be a real concern because trans fat causes more damage to the body,. So, buy Omega 3 supplemented eggs when you do your shopping next. Enjoy your eggs with all the phospholipids and Omega 3 fat, and enjoy a good mental health!
- Eat free range, organic and Omega 3 supplemented eggs
- Take phosphatidyl choline and phosphatidyl serine supplement if necessary
Amino acids are derived from proteins. The cells in our bodies communicate with one another through sending and receiving of messages. The carriers of these messages are neurotransmitters which are made up of amino acids. Deficiency in amino acids can cause depression, anxiety, lack of motivation, apathy, concentration difficulty and poor memory.
The main neurotransmitters which are important for mental health include:
- Adrenaline, noradrenaline and dopamine which stimulate and motivate us, make us feel good and help us to deal with stress
- GABA which calms and relaxes us, as well as settles us during stress
- Serotonin which stabilizes our mood, keeps us happy and prevents us from suffering depression
- Acetylcholine which keeps us alert, helps us in our memory and enhances our mental ability
We need about 20 amino acids for our bodies to function healthily. Of the 20 amino acids, our bodies can manufacture about 11 of them. The others are essential amino acids which have to be taken as foods.
We obtain the essential amino acids by eating proteins. 10 to 15% of our daily food intake should be made up of proteins. The following are foods which are rich in proteins:
- Meat and fish—meat by far provides the richest source of protein. However, meat, especially red meat, also has a propensity to raise the cholesterol in the body. Many people prefer chicken as a result. Alternately, oily fish such as salmon, sardine and tuna provide a rich source for protein.
- Eggs and yogurt
- Pulses such as soy (tofu), lentils, maize and chickpeas
- Nuts and seeds such as sunflower and pumpkin seeds, almond and cashew nuts
- Vegetables such as beans, spinach, broccoli and cauliflower
- If eating animal protein, choose fish, especially oily fish. For those who do not like fish, choose lean meat and, if possible, organic meat. For women, eat only 2 to 3 ounces of lean, free range meat once to twice daily. Men who are generally bigger than women may eat up to 4 ounces of lean, free range meat once to twice daily.
- Choose good vegetable protein sources such as soy, lentils and legumes
- Eat nuts and seeds daily
- Consider taking supplements such as tryptophan if you are suffering from a depression or anxiety.
Micronutrients are nutrients which are required by our bodies in amounts that are substantially smaller than the other food groups such as carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Micronutrients include antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. Since there is already an article about these micronutrients in this section of the website, I will only touch upon other pertinent information here.
The war within our bodies
Our bodies are constantly at war even when we feel healthy and well. Our bodies have a high level of reserve. So, our bodies are actually in quite a bad state when we have the subjective feeling of ill health. The things that our bodies wage war against are the free radicals. These are oxygen molecules that have one or more electrons missing. Consequently, they are unstable. To stabilize themselves, they “steal” electrons from the cells in our bodies causing tissue and organ damage.
Free radical damage can give rise to heart disease, brain disease, cancer and premature aging of the various organs including the nervous system. Free radicals can arise from:
- Our normal metabolism whenever oxygen reacts with energy fuels such as glucose or free fatty acids. So, normal activities such as digestion, walking and being alive create free radicals. Excessive exercise increases free radicals dramatically in our bodies. This is the reason why people who are very sporty and athletic in their younger days can suffer a dramatic decline in their health when they reach their 30”s when they do not take enough supplements to combat free radicals.
- Environmental factors such as radiation, cigarette smoking, pollution, chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, antibiotics, microorganisms (such as viruses and bacteria) and genetically modified foods can increase the amount of free radicals in our bodies. It is very unfortunate that our environment has become a toxic waste dump and we are taking in all these toxins through the water we drink and the foods we eat. Our water is polluted by chemicals and our foods are replete with all sorts of artificial fertilizers and pesticides that are poisonous to our bodies.
- Stress is the accepted malady of the modern day life. Stress is the precursor to anxiety disorders, depression and nervous breakdown. It also increases free radicals in our bodies.
Antioxidants are free radical scavengers. They stabilize the free radicals by donating electrons to the free radicals. As a result, tissue and organ damage are prevented.
There are many types of antioxidants and they work together in a network. For example,
- Vitamin E neutralizes the free radicals.
- Vitamin C and Co-enzyme Q recycle the vitamin E.
- Beta carotene potentiates the effect of vitamin C.
- Alpha lipoic acid and glutathione recycle vitamin C.
- Anthocyanidins recycles glutathione.
- Glutathione and vitamin C also neutralize free radicals.
Besides, antioxidants also need minerals such as zinc, manganese and selenium to work optimally.
For these reasons, one should eat foods and take a complete supplement which contains different types of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
Vitamins and minerals
Vitamins and minerals are substances which are essential for health. The chart below summarizes the actions of various vitamins and minerals which are essential for optimal mental health:
|Effects on mental health
||Improves concentration and attention.
||Stabilizes mood and thinking. Deficiency results in depression and psychosis.
||Enhances memory and resilience to stress.
||Stabilizes mood. Improves memory. Increases resistance to stress. Prevents irritability and depression.
||Stabilizes mood. Prevents depression. Deficiency can result in psychosis.
||Enhances cognitive functions and memory. Deficiency can result in psychosis.
||Stabilizes mood. Helps in treatment of depression.
||Enhances cognitive functions and mental health.
||Improves mental health. Deficiency can lead to irritability, insomnia and depression.
||Acts as antioxidant cofactor. Deficiency can result in dizziness and convulsion.
||Enhances cognitive functions and concentration. Stabilizes mood. Deficiency can lead to confusion, depression, loss of motivation and inattention.
||Acts as antioxidant cofactor. Helps to maintain good mental health.
- Avoid processed foods.
- Avoid foods containing chemical food additives.
- Avoid foods with hydrogenated fats.
- Do not smoke and stay away from smoky places.
- Eat foods rich in antioxidants such as fish, seeds, fruits and vegetables with high carotenoid content (they are usually red, orange or yellow in color).
- Eat mineral rich foods such as seeds and nuts.
- Drink home made fruit or raw vegetable juices regularly.
- Limit the use of alcohol to at most two drinks a day with an alcohol free day a week. Red wine is preferred because of its high antioxidant content.
- Drink green tea instead of coffee or ordinary tea because it contains the antioxidant catechins.
- Take a complete antioxidant, vitamin and mineral supplement daily.
- Combat stress by learning different stress management programs such as the Calm Optimizer, Anxiety Toolkit for the Young or Stress Toolkit for the Young, Performance and Potential Optimizer.
Hippocrates said: Let your medicine be your food and your food be your medicine.
If you want to enjoy a healthy mental and psychological life, you need to take more control over what you put into your bodies. Be proactive and pursue a healthy life style which is beneficial for your mental health. You can do a lot more for your psychological health than the doctors.