When school children with ADHD showing no improvement on standard drug treatment, received essential fatty acids daily for six months, parents reported significant improvement in “restlessness, aggressiveness, completing work, and academic performance”.
And, when 95 British middle managers were given dietary supplements to compensate for missing nutrients in their diet, after eight weeks, significant improvement in activity, mood, cognitive and behavioral strain, and stress management was recorded.
A closer look at those above examples shows us a staggering pattern that is recurrent in our everyday life: teenager and young adult violence and aggressiveness; school children hyperactivity, restlessness and poor academic performance; and, managers and employees stress, mood disturbance and lack of motivation. No one can deny that those behaviors are complex psychological and social problems that should be addressed from more than one perspective. Yet sometimes, the answer, or at least an important part of it, is closer than we could imagine: Our diet!
More and more studies are pointing at the importance of proper nutrients consumption for mental, social and cognitive behaviors and a simple look at our dinner table show us the damage we are inflecting upon ourselves and our loved ones. Typical modern-day diet is very poor in nutritional value, vitamins, minerals and fibers, yet very high in calories, refined carbohydrates and the wrong types of fats. This diet, studies show, is not only directly related to cardiovascular problems, inflammatory and chronic diseases, but it is also directly related to stress, mood disturbance, irritability, lack of motivation, inappropriate social behaviors, low cognitive performance and poor memory.
Studies show a significant correlation between the type of food we choose to eat and our mental health. Increased consumption of processed and refined foods is linked to anxiety . Low intake of fruits, vegetable, and good quality meat is linked to increased stress levels . Daily consumption of sweets and candy at the age of ten is linked to increased violent behavior in adulthood . Eating junk food at the young age of 4 is associated with hyperactivity and behavior problems in childhood as well as later in life . Omega-3 fatty acids deficiency is linked to depression and dementia, and omega-3 supplements are shown to prevent aggression and hostility, control anger and improve social behavior.
How Does it Work?
To understand the mechanism behind food effect on our mental health and social behavior, bare with me as we take a closer look at our biochemistry and physiological reactions.
Blood sugar level:
When we look at our mood swings, anxiety and irritability, the first culprit that comes to mind is erratic blood sugar level (BSL). Both hypoglycemia (low BSL) and hyperglycemia (high BSL) are detrimental to our health. The first drains our energy and depresses our mood and vitality; the later predisposes us to obesity, diabetes and uncomfortable mood swings.
When our blood sugar is low, our body sends us a signal usually by making us more fidgety, anxious, and stressed or by making us crave sweets and stimulants. Since we are always ‘on the run’, we fetch a quick fix. We resort to a chocolate bar, candy or cake to supply us with the required sugar ‘dose’; we get a cup of coffee, can of coke or smoke a cigarette to give us a boost of adrenaline, the well known fight-and-flight neurotransmitter that raises our BSL.
Eating instant refined sweets, although life saving in some cases, can start a vicious cycle of swinging blood levels of insulin and sugar which further disturbs our mood, increases our stress, and predisposes us to diabetes. Also raising our adrenaline through caffeine or nicotine aggravates our stress and anxiety, and, on the long run, affects our blood pressure, heart, and immunity.
An erratic BSL is not the only mechanism by which out modern diet wrecks havoc with our mental and social health, a diet lacking in many essential nutritional values is another major disruptive mechanism.
Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, are also the building blocks of our neurotransmitters; these are what Candace Pert, the famous neuroscientist, calls ‘molecules of emotion’. From the amino acid tryptophan for instance, serotonin, our mood boosting neurotransmitter, is synthesized. Low serotonin levels are linked to suicidal tendency, depression, violence and aggressive behaviors .
The amino acids phenyl alanine and tyrosine are the building blocks for dopamine and nor adrenaline, our motivational and feeling-good neurotransmitters. Dopamine also plays an essential role in controlling the reward and punishment processes in our brain . We need a constant supply of essential amino acids to keep our mood and emotions in check. The right balance, amount and type of the amino acids are determined by the composition and quality of our dietary protein.
B vitamins are other missing essentials. They play an important role in metabolism and nervous system health. They are also directly involved in the synthesis of many neurotransmitters. Besides, vitamin B6 is known to reduce risk and even treat premenstrual depression, and vitamin B12 deficiency is linked to dementia .
Omega-3 fatty acids deficiency is linked to depression and dementia, and omega-3 supplements are shown to prevent aggression and hostility, control anger and improve social behavior.
Essential minerals, especially zinc, manganese, chromium, copper and iron also contribute their share. Chromium helps controlling BSL and iron is an important factor in neurotransmitters synthesis . Iron deficiency is linked to depression and depleted energy .
Other vitamins are involved in our complex behavioral adjustment. Vitamin C, E and A are essential for nerve cell health, vitamin D deficiency is linked to depression and neurodegenerative diseases and vitamin K plays its role in nervous tissue biochemistry.
What Should we Eat?
Research performed in British and US prisons showed that aggressive and anti-social behaviors even in criminals could be corrected, at least in part, through dietary intervention . And, needless to say, the natural and synergistic effects achieved by consuming whole natural food in a balanced diet is far better than administering individual nutrients in capsules and pills.
For an optimum performance and optimum state of mind, we need first and foremost to balance our BSL.
The safest and most effective way to do that is balancing our diet quality, quantity and timing.
- We need to eat healthy diet with whole grains, lots of fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
- Choose high quality lean animal protein and remember that a little goes a long way; these are great compact protein source, so you do not need much.
- Eat fish at least once or twice a week and consume 1-2 tablespoons of flaxseeds or chia seeds daily to supply your need for omega-3 fatty acids.
- Eating balanced healthy three meals a day with two snacks in between supply us with the needed energy and nutrients to sustain our health and adjust our mood.
- Don’t skip meals and don’t forget your salad bowl along with your lunch and dinner.
- Take your time, enjoy the setting and feast your eyes before your palate.
- Avoid refined carbohydrates, simple sugars, over processed goods, energy drinks and caffeine.
- Reduce your intake of food with high Glycemic Index and avoid all foods with added preservatives, colors or flavors.
- Do not consume Trans-fats, the un-natural fat found in margarine and fried foods.
Talbinah: Our Traditional Soothing Food
Traditional Books of Prophetic medicine talked about one of our best mood soothing foods: Talbinah. Talbinah is a thin barley soup made with barley flour and adjusted to a milky consistency (and hence its name Talbinah, from the Arabic word, laban– meaning milk). It could be sweetened with honey or served as savory soup with added spices. Aisha, The Prophet's wife, narrated, “If any of the Messenger’s family became ill, the Messenger would recommend Talbinah to be prepared. He says: ‘It soothes the grief and cleanses the ailing heart just as one of you cleans dirt off her face with water.’ “(Related by Ibn Maajah). Recent studies on the effect of Talbinah showed its significant effect in boosting mental health, relieving depression and anxiety and balancing the mood .
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