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3 'Superfoods' That Your Brain Will Thank You For Eating

They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away—but which foods keep the therapist away?


Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | June 10, 2024

The gut-brain axis is a complex communication network linking the emotional and cognitive centers of the brain with peripheral intestinal functions. This bidirectional link involves neural, hormonal and immunological signaling pathways that mediate interactions between the gut microbiota and the brain.

The gut-brain axis entails a continuous dialogue between the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system, influencing mood, cognitive functions and even mental health disorders. For example, it is well-known that stress can affect gut function and that gut health can influence mental states such as anxiety and depression.

However, there are many lesser-known aspects of this relationship. Emerging research reveals that our gut microbiota—the community of trillions of microorganisms living in our intestines—plays a crucial role in this dialogue. These microbes can produce neuroactive compounds like serotonin, dopamine and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which are essential for relaxation and mood regulation.

Additionally, the balance and diversity of these gut microbes can impact the production of inflammatory molecules that affect brain function. Altering the gut microbiota through diet can therefore be a powerful strategy to enhance mental health and cognitive performance.

Here are three superfoods that you can consume to aid this process.

1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Fatty fish, including varieties like salmon, mackerel, sardines, herring and trout, are nutritional powerhouses, rich in omega-3 fatty acids. These fish provide essential fats like eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), which our bodies cannot produce independently.

Omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish play critical roles in brain health and function. They offer three significant benefits:

  • Anti-inflammatory properties. Chronic inflammation is harmful and associated with mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. Omega-3 fatty acids in fatty fish help reduce inflammation by inhibiting the production of inflammatory molecules. Lowering inflammation supports overall brain health and may alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety.
  • Neurotransmitter regulation. Omega-3 fatty acids influence the production and functioning of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, essential for mood regulation. Studies show that higher omega-3 intake is linked to a lower risk of depression and anxiety. Omega-3 supplements can also be as effective as antidepressant medications in reducing depressive symptoms, particularly in major depressive disorder.
  • Cognitive health. Regular omega-3 consumption is associated with slower cognitive decline and a reduced risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's. DHA, especially, maintains neuronal membrane health, supports neuroplasticity and facilitates efficient brain signaling. Research suggests that regular fatty fish consumption increases gray matter in the brain, supporting information processing, memory and emotional regulation.

2. Fermented Foods

Fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, miso and tempeh are not just delicious and versatile, but also rich in probiotics. These beneficial bacteria are crucial for maintaining and improving gut health, which is closely linked to overall mental well-being.

  • Probiotics are live microorganisms that, when consumed in adequate amounts, confer health benefits on the host. These beneficial bacteria are naturally found in fermented foods and help maintain a balanced gut microbiota—the complex community of microbes living in the digestive tract.
  • Probiotics can affect the production and function of neurotransmitters, the brain's chemical messengers. Certain strains like lactobacillus and bifidobacterium produce gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a calming neurotransmitter that reduces anxiety. They also boost serotonin production, known as the "feel-good" neurotransmitter, crucial for mood, sleep and appetite regulation.
  • Numerous studies support probiotics' ability to alleviate anxiety and depression symptoms. For example, a study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that after 28 days of daily intake, probiotics improved panic and neurophysiological anxiety, negative affect, worry and negative mood regulation.

3. Leafy Greens

Leafy greens, including spinach, kale, Swiss chard, collard greens and arugula, are nutritional powerhouses packed with essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. These vegetables are particularly beneficial for brain health due to their high content of folate, a crucial B vitamin, as well as other nutrients that support cognitive function and mental well-being.

  • Numerous studies have linked low folate levels to an increased risk of depression. Folate deficiency can impair the metabolism of neurotransmitters and lead to elevated levels of homocysteine, an amino acid associated with inflammation and neurotoxicity. By consuming leafy greens regularly, individuals can maintain adequate folate levels, which supports mental health and reduces the risk of depression.
  • According to a 2018 study, leafy greens are also rich in antioxidants, such as beta-carotene, lutein and flavonoids. These compounds protect the brain from oxidative stress and inflammation, which are implicated in the development of neurodegenerative diseases and mental health disorders. Antioxidants help to neutralize free radicals, reducing cellular damage and supporting brain health.

By recognizing the role of our gut microbiota in shaping mental health, we unlock powerful avenues for improvement. Incorporating dietary strategies that nurture gut health, such as the ones discussed above, offers promising pathways toward holistic well-being.

Are your eating habits motivated by health goals or weight loss goals? Take the Eating Attitudes Test to know if you need professional support.

A similar version of this article can also be found on Forbes.com, here.

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