According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, at this very moment, 3 million Canadians are suffering from depression and on any given week, more than 500,000 Canadians will not go to work because of mental illness. In the spirit of Bell’s Let’s Talk day last week (which made an incredible impact on Canada’s mental health care system, way to go Bell users:), I thought I’d share some of what the research has shown on ways to improve brain health.
There are a lot of factors to consider when thinking about improving mental health and for each person the cause may be different. What I present here are some general tips that have been shown in the research to boost brain vitality and leave us feeling healthy and happy.
Exercise has been shown to act as a natural antidepressant, improve memory, reduce anxiety, reduce the intensity of addictions and the list goes on. One of my favorite books is Spark by John Ratey, MD, a Harvard psychiatrist who discusses how exercise has transformative effects on the brain. In his book he reviews countless studies and analyzes extensively the latest scientific research on how frequent, moderate-to-high intensity cardio not only improves our physical health but mental and emotional as well. Exercise increases levels of a protein called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor)which is essential for maintaining healthy neurons and creating new ones.
From his book: “The real reason we feel so good when we get our blood pumping is that it makes the brain function at its best, and in my view, this benefit of physical activity is far more important…Building muscles and conditioning the heart and lungs are essentially side effects” He recommends interval training as especially beneficial – thirty seconds of sprinting between two minutes of walking for example for a total of 20-30 minutes, a couple times a day will radically boost brain power.
Check out his inspiring ted talk https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hBSVZdTQmDs
2. Healthy Fats
Our brains are made up of 60% fat so ensuring our diets contain the proper amount of fat is important, as long as they’re the right kind. Polyunsaturated fats such as omega 3 oils are highly concentrated in the brain and have been shown to be important for cognitive and behavioral function.
Omegas 3s are also one of the strongest anti-inflammatory agents. Many studies have linked depression to inflammation and thus this anti-inflammatory property of Omega 3 may also explain why they have been shown to be so effective at reducing the incidence of depression.
Good sources of omega 3 fatty acids are found in fish such as wild salmon, halibut, algae, krill, flaxseeds and chia seeds.
3. Avoiding Inflammatory Foods, Increasing Antioxidants
As inflammation has been linked with depression and other mental illness’ it is beneficial to avoid foods that provoke inflammation such as refined flour, excess sugar, trans fats, chemicals and preservatives and increase foods that fight inflammation (antioxidants such as berries, broccoli, garlic, green tea).A study in the American Journal of Psychiatry (Jacka et al., 2010) is one of many studies to highlight the association between the common Western diet with depression and anxiety.
4. Coconut Oil
A super-food that has been studied to have numerous health benefits, is particularly beneficial for brain health, specifically at preventing and treating Alzheimer’s disease. A 2006 study in the Neurobiology of Aging journal demonstrated that the medium chain triglycerides found in coconut oil almost immediately improved cognitive function (within 90 minutes improvements were seen!).
5. Vitamin D
Lower vitamin D levels in the blood have been linked to a higher risk of cognitive impairment confirmed in numerous studies. Vitamin D regulates the immune system, provides antioxidant support, enhances nerve conduction and also helps rid the toxins in our body. Most people need between 1000-5000 IU/day of Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) however the blood level of vitamin D should be measured before increasing sunlight exposure or taking any supplements as there is variation between person to person.
As I mentioned earlier these are tips for the general public. There are other factors that vary from person to person such as hormone imbalances, chronic infections, toxicity, and nutritional deficiencies to name a few, that need to be considered and treated for each individual.
Dr. Lara is a Naturopathic Doctor who is passionate about helping and empowering her patients in their journey towards lifelong health and wellness