Eat Better

Eat Better

BRAIN FOOD: Food for Thought

Guest Author:  Dee Muszynski

When I found out that a good friend of mine had been struggling with mental health,
who is otherwise vibrant, funny, and looks like one of the happiest people I know. It takes you by surprise.

I am grateful that my friend opened up to me that day but it made me reflect upon how many people hide behind their smiles. By the time Canadians reach 40 years old, 1 in 2 people will have or have had a mental illness 1.

Mental illness, historically, has been a taboo topic. It is not until recently, and slowly, that as a society we are beginning to recognize the impact that mental illness has on our communities.

In 2015, according to CAMH, 57% of individuals believe that the stigma around mental illness has declined.  Meaning that more people are aware of mental health and the implications that it has on our relationships, communities, and work lives.  The truth is that taking care of our mental health is more important than ever. With life demanding so much out of us, taking care of ourselves physically and MENTALLY is crucial.
What is mental health? According to Health Canada, mental health is the state of your psychological and emotional well-being. It is a necessary resource for living a healthy life and a main factor in overall health. Our brain plays a large role in keeping us mentally healthy.
How does food play a role in mental health?
There is evidence that nutrition and diet play a huge role in structural and functional development of the human brain throughout the life span 3. There is data to support that certain nutrients or lack thereof, could decrease cognitive function in older adults and adolescents, effect memory and even mood 2. Within a new area of research, there have been promising studies that suggest that certain nutrients could be linked to depression.

Let’s look at some specific nutrients that are in the spotlight in terms of brain health.
1. B-vitamins:
What are vitamins anyway? Vitamins are compounds that are essential for our physiological functioning 5. To meet our needs, vitamins need to be consumed through our diets because our bodies cannot make them 4, (except for vitamin D but we still need the sun).

There are 8 B vitamins that make up what we call B complex vitamins. 

Can you list them all? thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), biotin (B7), folate (B9) and cobalamin (B12).

There has been significant research done to support B vitamins role in brain integrity; especially B12, folate and to a lesser extent the other 6 B vitamins. B vitamins have been found to be important in metabolic pathways, energy production, DNA/RNA synthesis/repair, and the synthesis of numerous neurochemicals and signaling molecules in the brain 5. Epidemiological studies have found an association between decreased B vitamin intake and cognitive decline in older adults, and an increase in academic achievement in adolescence with vitamin B supplementation 3.

What about mental health? The Rotterdam study, a population-based study, found that sub optimal levels of B12 and to a lesser extent folate was found to have associations with depression in older adults 6. A study in Japan found that higher vitamin B status is associated with lower prevalence of depression among adolescence 7.

So not getting enough B vitamins could impact our mood negatively. 

How do we know that we aren’t getting enough?

Usually a deficiency will cause feelings of lethargy, loss of focus, fatigue, irritability and some studies have suggested an association between deficiency in B12 and folate and depression.

What foods are high in Vitamin B?
Whole grains, leafy vegetables, lean meats, liver, legumes, fish, nuts and seeds.  

A BALANCED diet is what we have here folks!

However, it is important to note that vegans and vegetarians are more prone to be deficient in B12 as this vitamin is only found in animal products and therefore, supplementing might be warranted. Chat with your dietitian before starting a supplement to ensure that it is the right move for your health.

2. The Gut-Brain axis and our mental health:
Recent studies have shown the relationship between the gut microbiota and the central nervous system (CNS) 8. The gut brain axis is the communication, a flow of information, between our brain and our gut.

Research has linked the microbiome to effect GI function, the CNS, and the immune system 9.
Although the relationship between the brain and our gut is well established, there are limited studies to prove that the health of our gut affect mood. However, there is promising pre-clinical research to suggest that the integrity of our microbiome can affect mood, behaviour and anxiety 8,9. There has also been work done that has shown that inflammation in the gut increases anxiety and depressive like behaviours.

How can we keep our microbiome in balance?

Diet is just one factor that we can control that shapes our microbiota. The food we eat allows for good bacteria to grow. The problem is that over time our food system has changed significantly. Changes from what foods we eat, and how we process these foods have impacted our microbiome, due to the good bacteria present in our food. Our western diet, which is high in fat and refined carbs low in fibre, decrease the health of our gut. 

So what foods can we focus on to help strengthen our gut and lead to better mental health?
Focus on getting probiotics into your daily routine.

What are probiotics?

According to the National Institute of Health, probiotics are live microorganisms that are intended to have health benefits.

What type of foods have probiotics?
Fermented foods, yogurt, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut tempeh, all have a substantial number of probiotics and can help the integrity of the gut.  
You also might have heard of the term “prebiotics”. Prebiotics is not the same as probiotic, although sound similar.

A prebiotic is a non-digestible food ingredient that helps restore and maintain friendly bacteria. These are considered to be a fibre however, not all fibre is a prebiotic. To be considered a prebiotic fibre, you must be able to go through the digestive tract undigested. Think of it as a fertilizer for probiotics.
Foods that are considered to be good sources of prebiotics and undigestible fibre are: artichokes, chicory, garlic, onion, beetroot, fennel bulb legumes such as chickpeas and red kidney beans.
3. Omega 3 fats:
What are omega 3s? Omega 3 fatty acids are a group of fatty acids called polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). There are two types that fall under the PUFA umbrella: omega 3s and omega 6s.
Omega 3’s consists of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid), and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid). ALA, found in flaxseed, canola oils, chi seeds, and walnuts. can turn into DHA and EPA but the conversion is small so getting EPA and DHA through the food we eat is recommended 4.
What are they saying about Omega 3s and brain health?

There have been studies done in older adults that have found supplementation with omega 3 helps preserve regions of the brain that have to do with brain function, such as memory and emotion.
There is also some epidemiological data that suggest people who usually consume a diet with rich content of omega-3-fatty acids, are at lower risk of developing major depression, prenatal depression, and bipolar depression 10. Studies found that an increase in EPA and DHA increase gray matter and the function in the brain that regulates depression 10.

How to get Omega 3s in the diet?
Chia seeds, flax seeds, walnuts, and fatty fish like salmon and mackerel, herring, sardines.

It’s important to note that omega 3s have not been found to be an effective way to treat major depressive issues. Just like with all nutrition science, person to person variability and other variables, such as other nutrient intake and life style factors all play a role in mood regulation.

Depression is also a multifaceted mental health disorder that might not be caused by a nutritional deficiency.

Our brain and our bodies are essentially made up of what we eat. Think protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins and minerals.

Having a balanced diet of these nutrients play a vital role in helping keep our bodies in homeostasis (balance).  Foods that are high in B vitamins, omega 3 and probiotics will help lead to a balanced diet, and support brain health at the same time. Try incorporating these foods into your daily routine!


  1. CAMH: Mental illness and addiction: Facts and Statistics.

  2. Talukdar, Tanveer, et al. “Nutrient Biomarkers Shape Individual Differences in Functional Brain Connectivity: Evidence from Omega‐3 PUFAs.” Human Brain Mapping, vol. 40, no. 6, 2018, pp. 1887–1897., doi:10.1002/hbm.24498.

  3. McGarel, C., et al. “Emerging Roles for Folate and Related B-Vitamins in Brain Health across the Lifecycle: Proceedings of the Nutrition Society.” Cambridge Core, Cambridge University Press, 5 Nov. 2014,

  4. Dietitians of Canada. Food Sources of Omega 3 Fats. 2013.

  5. Kennedy, O David. “B Vitamins and the Brain: Mechanisms, Dose and Efficacy-A review.” Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre, Northumbria University, Newcastle, 28 Jan. 2016

  6. Tiemeier, M.D., Henning et al., “Vitamin B12, Folate, and Homocysteine in Depression: The Rotterdam Study.” American Journal of Psychiatry, 2002,

  7. Kentaro PhD, Murakami et al., “Dietary Folate, Riboflavin, Vitamin B-6, and Vitamin B-12... : Psychosomatic Medicine.” LWW, 2010,,_Riboflavin,_Vitamin_B_6,_and.6.aspx.

  8. Foster, Jane A., and Karen-Anne Mcvey Neufeld. “Gut–Brain Axis: How the Microbiome Influences Anxiety and Depression.” Trends in Neurosciences, vol. 36, no. 5, 2013, pp. 305–312., doi:10.1016/j.tins.2013.01.005.

Department of Psychiatry and Behavioural Neurosciences, McMaster University, at St. Joseph’s Healthcare, 50 Charlton Ave. E, T3308, Hamilton, ON, L8N 4A6, Canada

  1. Rieder, Ryan, et al. “Microbes and Mental Health: A Review.” Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, vol. 66, 2017, pp. 9–17., doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2017.01.016.

  2. Wani, Ab Latif, et al. “Omega-3 Fatty Acids and the Treatment of Depression: a Review of Scientific Evidence.” Integrative Medicine Research, vol. 4, no. 3, 2015, pp. 132–141., doi:10.1016/j.imr.2015.07.003.

  3. National Institute of Health.

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