Nutrition researchers are now finding that certain foods help stave off depression, control pain and trigger excitement. ‘We’re on the cusp of finding out just how important nutrition is to mental health,’ says Brenda Leung, a nutrition researcher at the University of Calgary who is studying food’s effect on post-partum depression.
While some of the research is preliminary, it can’t hurt to put more of these foods on your plate.
Comfort food #1: Fish
A University of Arizona scientific review concluded the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)’found in fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines, and often added to eggs and other foods’significantly helped people with major depressive disorder and bipolar depression. The American Psychiatric Association endorsed the review and now recommends that adults eat fish twice a week, and that people with mental health disorders consume at least 1 gram of omega-3s a day. Health Canada recommends a minimum of 100 mg and up to 3 grams of omega-3s daily.
Comfort food #2: Milk
Deficiencies in vitamin D have already been linked to higher rates of cancer and multiple sclerosis in northern countries such as Canada. A 2008 study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry showed that it also has a link to depression. Researchers in Amsterdam looked at 1,282 seniors and found that vitamin D levels were 14 percent lower in those with depression. Milk, soy drinks and margarine are fortified with D, and it occurs naturally in fish, liver and egg yolks. Health Canada currently recommends that adults ages 19 to 50 take an additional 200 IU per day in a supplement, although some experts advocate 1,000 IU a day.
Comfort food #3: Sugar
Sugar can work as a painkiller. This has been proven mainly in studies of newborn rodents and humans, but also in older animals and adult humans. Sugar has been found useful in relieving acute pain, but not chronic pain. ‘It’s not necessarily the actual glucose or other carbohydrates; it’s the sweet taste,’ says Dr. Yoram Shir, medical director of the Pain Centre at McGill University Health Centre. Sugar triggers endorphins, like those awakened during exercise, and calms pain to various degrees in different people. Trying to avoid extra calories? The taste of sugar substitutes such as sucralose or the natural product stevia might have the same painkilling effect.
Comfort food #4: Grains and Greens
Leafy greens and fortified cereals are good for your brain. At the University of Kuopio in Finland, a study followed 2,313 men for more than 10 years. Those with the lowest intake of folate (vitamin B9, found in lentils, spinach, berries, oranges and avocados) were more likely to be diagnosed with depression than those who got more. Deficiencies in vitamin B12 (in shellfish, dairy and eggs), and vitamin B6 (in bananas, potatoes and fortified cereal) have also been linked to depression. Scientists think these B vitamins might help the body create serotonin, the mood-stabilizing neurotransmitter.
Comfort food #5: Tea
A cup of tea does soothe. A survey of 2,000 Finns found that those who drank a cup of tea every day were less likely to be depressed than those who didn’t. And no one who drank more than five cups a day was found to be depressed. Studies have theorized that the theanine in tea helps calm you.
Recipe to try:
‘ Matcha Green Tea Torte
Comfort food #6: Carrots, Sweet Potatoes and Squash
Orange vegetables with beta carotene’part of a fat-soluble group of compounds called carotenoids’not only help your eyesight, but also affect the brain. A study published in 2007 followed a group of 5,956 men for 18 years, by which time they were over age 65, and compared those who took beta carotene supplements with those who didn’t. Those taking beta carotene (which the body converts to vitamin A) did significantly better on cognition, verbal memory and other brain-related tests. Avoid beta carotene supplements if you are or ever were a smoker; studies link them to a higher risk of lung cancer in smokers.
Comfort food #7: Chocolate
In a study by Mindlab International, a brain-research group in the U.K., volunteers who let a square of dark chocolate melt in their mouth got a buzz, and in some cases their heart rates more than doubled. The rush lasted as much as four times longer than the one they got from a lengthy, passionate kiss. As well, a study from the University of Bristol in the U.K. found that chocolate and cocoa powder have a stimulant effect, mainly related to their caffeine content.
Comfort food #8: Coffee
Caffeine gives you a mental lift. When researchers at Northumbria University in the U.K. gave 48 volunteers caffeine or a placebo and had them do a number of tasks and tests, they found that caffeine perked people up’especially the regular caffeine drinkers. The authors speculate that caffeine affects some people’s moods more than it affects others, which might explain why certain people become regular coffee drinkers while others don’t.
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