10 brain foods to help fight depression and insomnia, boost libido and more

“We all have to eat. Why not eat in a way that’s going to help our brain?” nutritional psychiatrist says.
Salmon
Salmon is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids.Getty Images

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By A. Pawlowski

You are what you eat so it’s not surprising a doctor will advise a proper diet to address everything from heart disease to obesity.

The same concept applies to mental health, with nutritional psychiatry — still a somewhat niche area in medicine — focusing on certain foods to boost mood and prevent or reduce problems like anxiety and depression.

That’s because the gut and the brain are uniquely connected, said Dr. Uma Naidoo, director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

People don’t think about it because the brain and the gut are housed in different parts of the body, but the two are joined by the vagus nerve, which carries signals between them, leading to a lifelong “gut-brain romance,” she writes in her new book, “This Is Your Brain on Food: An Indispensable Guide to the Surprising Foods that Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, and More.”

Medications used for depression and anxiety, for example, often work through serotonin receptors, most of which are found in the gut. That’s why Naidoo — who is a prescribing psychiatrist, a nutritionist and a trained chef — also gives her patients mental health advice from a food perspective.

“I’m not opposed to medications, I just think that nutrition is like having an additional piece of armor that you can fend off depression, anxiety and other symptoms,” she told TODAY.

“We all have to eat. Why not eat in a way that’s going to help our brain?”

Here is a sample of food-as-mental-health-medicine that may surprise you:

To fight depression:

Yogurt: It contains active cultures that provide a probiotic benefit — they promote the good bacteria in your gut, some of which can boost levels of certain brain chemicals that may help relieve depression, Naidoo noted. Be sure to avoid yogurt with added sugar — go for the plain kind and add berries or a sprinkle of cinnamon. Fermented foods like miso, kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles and kefir provide a similar benefit.

When the good bugs in your gut thrive, they will help you feel emotionally better, Naidoo said.

Turmeric: the spice and its active ingredient, curcumin, make an appearance in Naidoo’s book over and over again. “Simply put, it adjusts brain chemistry and protects brain cells against toxic damage that leads to depression,” she writes. Add it to a smoothie or soup, or sprinkle it in a salad dressing as an easy way to incorporate it in your diet.

A caveat: Naido cautioned people can’t eat their way out of feeling depressed, so food may only be one part of treatment that could also include active therapy and medication.

To promote good mood:

SMASH: That’s an acronym for salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring — all foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which are “crucial to mental health,” Naidoo noted: “They are powerful mediators of brain health just by their action.”

Mediterranean diet: With its focus on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans and olive oil, it naturally includes a plethora of “depression-busting” foods, she writes.

To fight insomnia:

Chamomile tea: Known for its sedative effect, Naidoo suggested sipping one to three cups of it a day, with the last cup consumed in the early evening. Check with your doctor first if you’re taking blood thinners, painkillers or other sedatives.

Tart cherries, in juice or fruit form: They promote sleep and the fruit can be bought frozen if not available fresh. Naidoo suggested having it as a snack in the evening or making it into a beverage. She didn’t necessarily advise buying bottled tart cherry juice, which may be processed and contain added sugar.

Omelet in the evening: “It may sound odd, but if you’re really struggling with sleep, having eggs, adding in some asparagus or broccoli to that, even some sunflower seeds, all of those come together to be really good for sleep because they’re rich in melatonin,” Naidoo said.

To stop brain fog:

Hot or sweet peppers: They contain luteolin, a type of flavonoid — a natural plant chemical — that may help restore sharp thinking. Fresh peppermint, parsley, dried Mexican oregano and artichokes are other good sources.

To boost libido:

Go for pistachios: Naidoo recommends eating about a quarter cup a day of these or other nuts, including walnuts and almonds, after reviewing research that found they enhanced sexual desire, arousal and satisfaction.

Avoid black licorice: The roots of the licorice plant contain glycyrrhizic acid, which is associated with lower testosterone levels. “Probably don’t have it on an evening when you have a date,” Naidoo said, noting that aside from candy, it can be found in teas and some chewing gums. “These are things people may not realize are impacting them.”