Here’s a startling statistic—studies show that people who consume a healthy diet are 40% to 50% less likely to develop depression.
What are the absolutely best nutrients—and most nutrient-packed foods—to protect your brain from depression and other ailments?
Eat Complete author Drew Ramsey, MD, a psychiatry professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and an expert on nutrition and the brain, went on a scholarly quest to find out.
The good news is that what protects mood also protects against dementia and other brain-related conditions. “We used depression in our research because that’s where all the data is,” explained Dr. Ramsey, “but depression can be considered a proxy for brain health.”
So he developed a “Brain Food Scale” and presented his early findings to a packed crowd at the American Psychiatric Association’s 2016 annual meeting. He is preparing the scale for submission to an academic journal, but he has agreed to share its essential elements with Bottom Line readers here. “The brain is the biggest asset we have,” said Dr. Ramsey, “so we should be selecting foods that specifically nourish the brain.”
Here’s how to build the healthiest brain possible—starting in your kitchen.
NUTRIENTS BRAINS NEED MOST
Dr. Ramsey and his colleagues scoured the scientific literature, including epidemiological studies and clinical trials, and identified these key nutrients as the most important…
- Long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. There are two major ones. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) creates hormones called “neuroprotectins and resolvins” that combat brain inflammation, which is implicated in the development of depression (as well as dementia). Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) protects the cardiovascular system, important for a healthy brain.
- Zinc. This mineral plays a major role in the development of new brain cells and can boost the efficacy of antidepressant medications.
- Folate. Also known as vitamin B-9, folate is needed for good moods and a healthy brain. It helps produce defensin-1, a molecule that protects the brain and increases the concentration of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that’s crucial to memory and cognition.
- Iron. This essential element is a crucial cofactor in the synthesis of mood-regulating neurotransmitters including dopamine and serotonin.
- Magnesium. This mineral is required to keep myelin—the insulation of brain cells—healthy. It also increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which promotes the growth of new neurons and healthy connections among brain cells. A deficiency in magnesium can lead to depression, anxiety, symptoms of ADHD, insomnia and fatigue.
- Vitamin B-12. This vitamin, which often is deficient as we age, helps makes neurotransmitters that are key to mood and memory.
- Vitamin E. This potent antioxidant vitamin protects polyunsaturated fatty acids in the brain—including DHA. Vitamin E–rich foods, but not supplements, are linked to the prevention of clinical depression as well as slower progression of Alzheimer’s disease. One reason may be that most supplements contain only alpha-tocopherol, while other vitamin E compounds, particularly tocotrienols, play important roles in brain function.
- Dietary fiber. A high-fiber diet supports healthy gut bacteria (the gut “microbiome”), which growing evidence suggests is key for mental health.
Once Dr. Ramsey’s team identified the key nutrients, they used the USDA nutrient database to identify foods that packed the highest nutrient concentration into the fewest calories. That’s the Brain Food Scale.
BOOSTING YOUR MOOD AT THE SUPERMARKET
According to the Brain Food Scale, the best brain foods are mostly plant-based, but seafood, wild game and even some organ meats make the top of the list, too…
- Leafy greens such as kale, mustard greens and collard greens
- Bell peppers such as red, green and orange
- Cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage
- Berries such as strawberries, raspberries and blueberries
- Nuts such as pecans, walnuts, almonds and cashews
- Bivalves such as oysters, clams and mussels
- Crustaceans such as crab, lobster and shrimp
- Fish such as sardines, salmon and fish roe
- Organ meats such as liver, poultry giblets and heart
- Game and wild meat such as bison, elk and duck
Eating these nutrient-dense foods is likely to help prevent and treat mental illness. “When we treat someone with depression, our real goal is to prevent that person from ever getting depressed again,” said Dr. Ramsey.
EVERYDAY BRAIN FOODS
Not into eating beef heart? Having a little trouble stocking up on elk? Dr. Ramsey gets it, and he doesn’t expect everyone to eat only from the top of the Brain Food Scale. When it comes to meat, for example, wild game may not be widely available, but grass-fed beef, which is higher in omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally raised beef, is stocked in most supermarkets—and may be independently associated with protection from depression.
Other foods that didn’t make it to the top of the Brain Food Scale but that still are very good for the brain include eggs (iron, zinc), beans (fiber, magnesium, iron) and fruits and vegetables of all colors (fiber, antioxidants). Plus, small quantities of dark chocolate, which “gives you a little dopamine rush,” Dr. Ramsey said. Dopamine, he explains, is a neurotransmitter that provides a feeling of reward. To make it super simple, Dr. Ramsey has coined a rhyme to catch everyday brain foods…
Seafood, greens/Nuts and beans
And a little dark chocolate.