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I don’t know the first family who hasn’t dealt with mental illness in one way or another. Mental illness can be scary and lonely.

You are not alone.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), an estimated 43 million adult Americans (1 in 5) are diagnosable with a mental health issue. As scary as this number is, it helps to know that most of these are not disabling illnesses. That said, approximately 10 million Americans suffer from debilitating mental health illnesses. Almost 20% of children from 13 to 18 years of age have or have been diagnosed with a debilitating mental health disorder. That’s more than asthma and diabetes combined and doubled!

In October, we celebrate Mental Illness Awareness Week, the National Day of Prayer for Mental Illness Recovery and Understanding, National Depression Screening Day and World Mental Health Day. Days like this are important to not only create awareness for mental health issues, but also shed light on ways to improve mental health.

If you think about it, your brain never turns off. Night and day your brain is keeping your body breathing, your blood pumping, not to mention the thousand things that flash through it right before falling asleep to, inevitably, keep you awake a little longer than you had hoped for.

Nutrition and mental health have a direct link. Though Nutritional Psychology is a relatively new field, it’s one that helping get better insight to mental health and nutrition. There are NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information) studies that link pre-natal and diet during maternity and a child’s first years to improved mental health in adolescents and young adults.

As a Harvard Health article, Nutritional psychiatry: Your brain on food states, “what you eat directly effects the structure and function of your brain, and, ultimately, your mood.”

There’s a lot in that statement. Food doesn’t only effect the function, but also the structure of our brains. So, let’s give our brains and bodies a head start on mental health by being mindful of what we eat and what our brains need.

  • salad-1250016_1920Fuel Your Brain with Complex Carbohydrates: Our brains need glucose to function. In fact, the brain uses 1/5 of the blood pumped by the heart. Our brains are magical instruments, always on call. This doesn’t mean we should start a steady diet of Twinkies. Include a variety of complex carbs including whole-wheat breads and rice, quinoa and beans, winter squash and oatmeal. Making these complex carbs an integral part of our diets is the best way to feed the brain, and keep it on the slow-release plan.
  • Consider Eating Clean: The eating clean movement is one nutritionists and dietitians applaud, one in which consumers reduce consumption of refined sugars and overly-processed foods. Diets high in refined sugars damage the brain – as they stimulate inflammation and oxidative stress as well as lessen the body’s regulation of insulin. There’s a high correlation between diets with too many refined sugars and depression.
  • Pump Up Your Seratonin with ProBiotics: Approximately 95% of the serotonin in our bodies is produced in our gastrointestinal tract. Prebiotics and probiotics help combat allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, and improve GI health. It’s not too much of a stretch to understand that these good bacteria affect brain health. Studies show that when people take probiotics, their anxiety and stress are reduced and outlook is improved.
  • walnuts-558488_1920Stock Up on Salmon, Chia Seeds, and Walnuts! Omega-3 foods are essential to brain function. An NCBI study, Brain Foods: the effects of nutrients on brain function found that a “dietary deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids in humans has been associated with increased risk of several mental disorders, including attention-deficit disorder, dyslexia, dementia, depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.” So, some of these Omega-3 foods are on the dietitian’s “greatest hits” charts. Find creative ways to include them in your daily recipes.
  • Quench Your Brain’s Thirst: The brain is approximately 80% water, so when we’re dehydrated, our brains and mood feel the strain. Staying hydrated and drinking our 8 glasses of water each day  is crucial to brain and mental health.

I know that nutrition alone won’t combat all mental health illnesses. But by being mindful of what we eat and how we feed our brains could be a critical step toward mental health. Feed your body, feed your mind.