How Does Food Affect Your Brain: Can it Make you More Intelligent and Happier?

Can food really have that much of an effect? Obviously if I eat too much I might feel a bit tired and moody. I suppose if I don't eat at all I won't think very clearly either. But surely what I eat doesn't change how clever I am or how happy I feel?

 
Photo Credit: Ars Electronica via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Ars Electronica via Compfight cc

 

Actually, more and more studies are suggesting that we should be paying more attention to our diet if we want our brains to perform at their best. In fact, considering how much scientists have changed their minds over the last 50 years, there is probably a lot more research to come.

First, let's take a look at the evidence that food can make us more intelligent. There are many so-called 'brain-foods' that we will come to later on, but one of the most researched is fish.

Believing in 'brain-foods' used to be like believing in fairies

In 1957, a science journal scoffed at people who called fish ‘brain-food’, dismissing as ‘superstition’ something we widely accept as true today. In the article, Dr. Cora Miller from UCLA says that fish ‘will not improve your acuity of insight or raise your I.Q. any more than it will improve your backstroke’. Well, as you might expect, she was wrong.

‘Brain-food’ really does exist

In 2008, Fernando Gómez-Pinilla, researching at UCLA over 50 years after Dr. Miller, analysed more than 160 studies about food’s effect on the brain and confirmed that fish really is ‘brain-food’. The omega-3 fatty acids, of which fish is a source, ‘support synaptic plasticity and seem to positively affect the expression of several molecules related to learning and memory that are found on synapses’.

In rats, consuming 8% fish oil (the equivalent of humans eating two portions of fish a week) meant that, even when brain-injured, they could master a task almost as quickly as healthy rats, and considerably faster than other brain-injured rats.

Similar results have been shown in humans. In Australia and Indonesia, a total of 780 children aged 6-12 were given a drink containing omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins for 6 days a week. When tested 12 months later, those who were consuming the drink performed better at school than the control groups.

According to Gómez-Pinilla, DHA is the most abundant omega-3 fatty acid in the brain but ‘the brain and the body are deficient in the machinery to make DHA; it has to come through our diet’. Fish, in particular is a rich source.

So - although we don’t yet have any proof that fish can improve your backstroke, we can safely say it has the potential to increase your I.Q. This is particularly true if you are Omega-3 deficient, and as many as 70% of us are!

If food can make us more intelligent, can it make us happier?

Now, common sense would suggest that if one type of nutrient can affect the brain’s performance, other nutrients must be able to do so. Similarly, if it can affect our intellectual performance, what about our emotional stability?

Well, a dietary deficiency of omega-3 fatty acids has been associated with an increased risk of mental disorders like depression, dyslexia and even schizophrenia; there is certainly a connection between food and mental health.

Only a few weeks ago the BBC published an article considering the possibility that fast food is making us depressed.

This idea has become more and more widely accepted in the last few years. In 2010, a study showed that people who eat a Mediterranean diet, rich in vegetables, fruit, legumes and grains were almost half as likely to develop depression as those eating a typical ‘Western’ diet.

Similarly, psychologists examining UK civil servants found that those who regularly ate foods high in fat and sugar were 60% more likely to develop depression in a five-year period.

In fact, a 2-year study by Charles Reynolds at the University of Pittsburgh monitored a group of people, half taking psychotherapy and the other half simply given advice on healthy eating. Unexpectedly for Reynolds, who meant for the second group to merely be a control, they were about half as likely to develop depression as they should have been!

 
Photo Credit: Lotus Carroll via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Lotus Carroll via Compfight cc

The good news and the bad news

This is bad news for thin people who seem to be healthy, but still consume a lot of fast food; it is much more about the interior than the exterior.

The good news is that, logically, if food high in fat and sugar can make us more likely to be depressed, eating healthily makes us more likely to be happy!

The key really is healthy eating, not necessarily weight loss. In fact, it is possible that weight loss in itself can have adverse effects on mental health.

So what should I be eating?

Eating in a way that improves how we feel and perform is mostly common sense and will have a huge variety of physical benefits, as well as neurological ones.

Inflammation is key

Among the crucial findings is the importance of inflammation. Depression can cause inflammation in the body and trigger physical ailments but inflammation can also trigger depression. One cause of inflammation is a poor diet. Simply put, it is possible that:

 
Inflammation

Eat little and often

Firstly, the frequency of our eating can affect our mood and energy levels. It is best to eat small amounts of food relatively often and avoid foods high in sugar. This will help balance our blood sugar levels and therefore avoid mood swings.

Hack your hormones

Brain chemicals that can make us feel happier, like serotonin and dopamine, can be affected by what we eat. Take a look at MindBodyGreen’s 5 Foods to Eat for Happiness for some examples.

Watch out for allergies

Allergies and sensitivities to food can cause changes to our mood and our overall sense of wellbeing. See this article on how to find out if you have food and chemical sensitivities.

Get the right vitamins and minerals

Finally, as the studies show, we need to be getting enough of the right vitamins, minerals and fatty acids. It is important to do your research, especially when it comes to supplements. For example, while B vitamins may reduce brain shrinkage by up to 90%, folic acid (a synthetic B vitamin) may actually increase your risk of cancer.

Some suggestions are shown in the table below:

 
FOOD OR NUTRIENT WHY? GOOD SOURCES
Omega-3 fatty acids Improved brain functioning, reduces the risk of psychosis Salmon, rainbow trout walnuts, kiwi fruit, flax seeds, chia seeds
Vitamin D Reduced risk of cognitive impairment, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression Salmon, tuna, mackerel and vitamin D fortified foods like orange juice, milk, yoghurt
High intake of fresh fruit, leafy greens and vegetables General positive mental outcomes Apples, oranges, berries, kale, collard greens, carrots, tomatoes etc.
Choline Can improve memory Eggs, beef, fish, chicken, broccoli, spinach, almonds, brown rice
B vitamins (folate) Essential for brain functioning,
may enhance memory
Spinach, orange juice, yeast, quinoa, barley
Curcumin Reduces inflammation Turmeric
Nitric oxide Some,foods can stimulate nitric oxide production in the body leading to reduced blood pressure and increased blood flow to the brain. Cayenne pepper, jalapenos, dark chocolate,
beetroot
Selenium Reduces the risk of
depression
Brazil nuts, seafood, seeds, pork, whole grains

More information

Take a look at Mind Body Green's 13 Foods To Help Ease Anxiety & Stress.

If you want to try a great app to check what vitamins and nutrients are in your food, Lifehacker.co.uk recommends Wholesome.

How are you hacking your happiness?

Have you seen a change in how you feel and perform when you eat healthier food? Any other suggestions? Leave a comment below or get in touch at hello@hacking-happiness.co. You can also subscribe to our newsletter here.

Happy hacking!