In recognition of Veteran’s Day, today we salute and honor the dedication, commitment and courage of the members of our armed forces. There has been increasing awareness of the long-term health effects of being deployed to fight overseas or to a training facility, including mental health struggles and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
The stats are staggering: More than 1.7 million veterans received treatment in a VA mental health program in 2018 alone. A 2014 JAMA Psychiatry study found that the rate of PTSD among veterans is 15 times that of the average citizen, and the rate of depression is 5 times higher. Finally, some 14-16% of US service members who were deployed to either Afghanistan or Iraq have PTSD or depression. While these challenges require a multi-pronged approach, diet, and lifestyle and supplemental support can be beneficial in calming anxiety and quelling nerves, in addition to helping get deeper and less interrupted sleep.
We think of food as one of the main foundations for health, which includes reducing anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other mental health concerns—for veterans and civilians alike. The following is a list of foods that help boost brain health and buffer against low or unstable moods.
Foods to Help Boost Brain Health and Bugger Against Low Moods
This nutrient-dense food has been demonized in recent years, but it’s actually a superfood for mental health. High-quality red meat contains vitamin D, B6 and B12, which helps to strengthen immunity and cognition as well as calm the mind. It’s also rich in minerals like zinc, iron (necessary for transporting oxygen to the brain) and selenium—which are all important for uplifting your mood. Its protein content aids blood sugar stabilization, which helps to prevent irritability and mood swings.
You’ve heard a lot about the healthy fats in fish, but did you know that seafood can also be an important source of amino acids, vitamins A and D, zinc (some people who experience anxiety may be low in zinc), iodine, B12, calcium, selenium and more? These and the omega-3s playa vital role in mood disorders and in brain health overall. Choose cold-water fatty fish like wild salmon, mackerel and sardines.
Consider moving this cabbage-based superstar from a hot dog topping to a regular side dish on your dinner plate. Teeming with probiotics or beneficial bacteria, a dollop of sauerkraut at meals may help stave off nervousness in the long run. One researcher discovered that lactobacillus, a bacteria strain, creates GABA receptors and also produces GABA, a neurotransmitter that can make our frame of mind a little sunnier. The strong link between gut and brain health makes fermented foods a crucial piece of emotional balance and wellbeing.
You may have turned up your nose at the liver your mother or grandmother offered you as a kid, but it turns out organ meats like liver, heart, tongue and kidney are important for a variety of reasons. They provide the body with methionine, an amino acid necessary for our methylation pathways. The process of methylation is critical to regulating and synthesizing many compounds (like dopamine, melatonin and carnitine) that support the function of much of our brain chemistry as well as most biochemical processes in our body. If you don’t want to eat organ meats, you can take them as supplements.
These little nutritional powerhouses pack more protein than many other seeds and are rich in tryptophan, which helps your body produce serotonin (an important and possible mood-enhancing neurotransmitter), not to mention get some mental rest during shut-eye. Their zinc content also aids in tryptophan’s conversion to serotonin. A half cup also boasts almost the whole RDA for magnesium, a potent stress (and constipation) reliever!
Kelp is rich in many minerals, chief among them magnesium. Think of it as the mineral antidote to a meltdown. Seaweed also contains tryptophan—creating a winning combination of taste and tranquility.
Our brain is made up of mostly fat, so we need to eat nourishing fats to support its optimal health and functioning. The medium-chain fatty acids found in coconut offer your brain a quick source of energy that your body does not have to work hard to use. It helps quell inflammation in the brain, a likely culprit in many cases of nervousness and stress.
This water-soluble amino acid is found in both green and black teas, and helps to alleviate stress and tension without making you sleepy. A 2008 study found that participants taking a daily dose of 50 mg of the amino acid had more alpha (relaxed brain waves) activity than those taking a placebo. A cup of tea may do the trick; if not, opt for a supplement that offers about 200 mg daily.
Chicken bones—why would you load your grocery cart with things you’d normally discard? These bits can be used to make a gelatin- and glycine-rich stock that can soothe your digestive tract and strengthen your immune system (both help ease frazzled nerves and racing thoughts). The hormone osteocalcin, produced in bones, has been shown to positively affect mood and memory, and the minerals pulled from the bones are important for nerve function. Boil bones and veggies like carrots, celery and onions in a large pot with a couple of teaspoons of apple cider vinegar to draw out the minerals you need. Cook for at least 8-10 hours (up to 24 hours is often recommended), then drink plain or mix into a soup. Ask if there are organic, pastured poultry (or beef) bones at the meat section of your local market, or save bones from a carcass you’ve roasted and already eaten.
More reason to love dark chocolate: An ounce of a 70% chocolate bar contains 65 mg of magnesium, that muscle-relieving mineral discussed above. Chocolate also can cause your brain to cause natural opiates, which have anxiety-reducing effects. This treat also offers up to cannibinoids that produce a THC-like substance (the active ingredient in marijuana) in the brain, which can reduce angst and worry. In some people, chocolate can increase anxiety, so go slowly and keep a close eye on your symptoms—and eat earlier in the day as well if you’re sensitive to caffeine.