Brain Foods

Brain Foods

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Feeding body and mind

By Lauren Ober / The Citizen
Wednesday, March 16, 2005 9:25 AM EST

Italians, Greeks and Spaniards always seem so happy and healthy.

Perhaps its because they live in a beautiful part of the world where the sun always shines and the people are always glowing. But its more likely that the Mediterranean diet more than anything causes the ebullience in these people.

Research recently reported in the journal "Biological Psychiatry," points to the antidepressant effects of omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish such as salmon and herring. The research also studied the nucleoside uridine found in sugar beets and beet molasses.

Over the last few years, omega-3 has been the darling of the medical community. Researchers have studied its curative effects on everything from heart disease to arthritis and have touted a balanced diet rich in good fatty acids.

In the studies reviewed by the medical journal, those societies that tend to eat a lot of fish had lower levels of depression than societies like the U.S. where fish is not a dietary staple. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, depressive disorders effect about 19 million Americans.

A recent study at Ghent University in Belgium found that patients with depression had lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids in their blood than patients without depression. Researchers drew the conclusion that lower fatty acids in a person's brain tissue can point to a higher probability of depression.

All this research about omega-3 doesn't mean you need to start an all-fish diet if you're feeling blue. But it does show that it's possible to help your mood with the foods that you consume.

Melissa Entenmann, director of the Auburn Memorial Hospital Diabetes Education Center and registered dietitian, says she pushes omega-3 fatty acids for a variety of reasons, including its ability to help combat heart disease and cancer.

"Fish and anything with omega-3 is brain food as well as mood food. There are so many good benefits from it. We definitely don't eat enough fish in the U.S. and when we do it's fried," she said.

You don't just have to eat fish to get the benefits from omega-3. Ground flaxseed, canola oil and many different types of nuts contain a decent amount of the fatty acids. Entenmann says she recommends that people have a handful of nuts every day and stay away from foods that are overly processed.

"The more you process something, the more likely you are to alter what was initially beneficial," she said.

In addition to omega-3 fatty acids and uridine, the B vitamin folate helps the brain use serotonin and dopamine, mood-regulating chemicals, effectively. Researchers at Tufts University in Massachusetts found that people with a history of depression have lower levels of folate in their blood than those who have never dealt with depression.

Foods with enriched grains like whole wheat bread, pasta and cereal add 80 to 200 micrograms of folate a day, though you may want to consider a supplement if you're not getting the RDA of 400 micrograms. Leafy greens such as spinach and turnip greens, and dried beans and peas also provide a sufficient dose of folate.

Entenmann suggests thinking of folate as foliage. The word will give you clues as to what nutrients are contained inside. You can never go wrong with dark green leafy produce when it comes to folate.

Vitamin B6 deficiency has also been linked to depression. Either patients were not getting enough B6 or their bodies were not able to absorb the vitamin properly. Foods rich in B6 (pyridoxine) include yeast, sunflower seeds, wheat germ, soy beans and walnuts.

There's also been research, though not as in-depth as the recent omega-3 studies, that suggests a link between complex carbohydrates (good carbs) and mood. Carbohydrates may boost serotonin levels in the brain, which is why typical "comfort foods" really do give comfort. Foods such as broccoli, brown rice, potatoes and blackberries contain good carbs that can help enhance mood and stave off the blues.

Fad diets that tout low-carb living can actually be detrimental to mood and can bring about negative emotions instead of positive health results. Entenmann says its called the "Atkins attitude," where some people following a low-carb diet exhibit feelings of tension, anger and depression.

"Initially you might feel good, but then you might start showing these feelings. The carbs are missing and they are what produce good chemicals that have a calming effect," Entenmann said.

While Entenmann doesn't advocate self-medicating through food if you have serious depression, she does believe that the link between mood and food is undeniable. One way of helping people overcome depression is by taking a closer look at their diets.

"When people are depressed, they may not be eating a balanced diet and they may not be getting the nutrients they need," she said. "There is no doubt that food has a role in depression."

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