A fascinating facet of nutrition is food's ability to change how we think and feel, for better or worse, and how important diet is to cognition, focus, memory and mood.
A few key nutrients that affect our outlook include vitamins D and E and folate, micronutrients that are increasingly deficient among Americans who are eating great quantities of processed foods.
Though vitamin D is provided with help from the sun, it's seasonally limited, and the majority of Americans are deficient. As the days get shorter, vitamin D becomes less naturally available.
Vitamin E plays an important role as an antioxidant, protecting our cell membranes and very mildly thinning the blood. It's also important protection for our DNA and cellular energy production. We get vitamin E from whole grains, nuts and seeds. Though vitamin E is fairly scarce in fruit, kiwis contain some.
Folate alone may help boost your mood, but because it comes mostly from vegetables, many Americans are relying on getting their daily supply with the help of supplements or folic acid added to enriched grain products.
When seniors exhibit depression symptoms, an assessment of folate status and supplementation can be useful because the nutrient plays heart-health roles, as well.
Mounting research shows that zinc deficiency may lead to higher rates of aggression and violent behavior. Zinc also is a key trace mineral for cognitive development and growth. An under-recognized role of zinc is its importance in helping the body utilize essential fatty acids, without which cognitive function is greatly impaired.
Omega-3 fatty acids from fish have shown benefits in reducing aggressive behavior in prison inmates. They also boost cognition and minimize symptoms of physical pain and inflammation. Omega-3s have shown great promise in helping with behavioral problems, which is important because omega-3 deficiency is known to cause depression symptoms and mood swings. Omega-3s possess the added benefit of minimizing various cardiovascular risk factors.
Phytochemicals, the critical plant nutrients we obtain mostly from vegetables, spices, herbs, fruit and other foods, are increasingly being viewed as key to cognition. Various powdered and liquid "cocktails" of phytonutrients continue to be tested in clinical trials to gauge their effectiveness in slowing cognitive decline and possibly preventing dementia.
Many of the herbs that live on in our collective memory and culinary culture, such as rosemary and sage, actually have mounting evidence that they're critical to neuro-preservation.
Though nutrition isn't yet universally accepted as a key driver of neurological health, we've come a long way in understanding its multifaceted roles. In the coming years, we'll see that diet will serve not just as prevention but as a major force for treatment of mental illness and mood disorders.
Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness and teaches at Southern Oregon University. E-mail him at email@example.com.