Nourish your nervous system: foods to feel good
By Georgina Cron
3rd Year BHSc (Nutritional Medicine)
Life gets busy. But when you feel 'busy' turning into 'stressed', one of the easiest, most effective and sustainable ways to get yourself back to feeling good is watching what you eat.
Recent research on the link between diet, the importance of good bacteria in the gut and our mental health suggests that if we eat well, we lay the groundwork for positive mental health.
Want to know the best part? The majority of nutrients the body needs to achieve this state is easily found in a healthy, well-balanced and varied diet. Any many are readily available, including from Gram.
WHAT IS THE NERVOUS SYSTEM?
Your nervous system is made up of your brain, spinal cord and nerves. There are many parts of the nervous system that produce different voluntary and involuntary responses in our bodies. Just two parts of the nervous system have the strongest effect on our stress levels - the parasympathetic (PNS) and the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).
The PNS is all about rest, relaxation and digestion. This is a nice state to be in. Whereas the SNS induces our stress response aka 'fight or flight'.
Although stress can be healthy at times, for many of us, our SNS is switched on a little too often and the mechanisms aimed at bringing our body back to balance are disturbed. This leads to systematic inflammation in our bodies, which is something we want to avoid.
Two major contributors to inflammation in the body are a) stress and b) diet. There are always going to be things in our lives that stress us out - workplace blues, relationship troubles, global health pandemics! So, learning to deal with stress is going to be nourishing for both your mind and body.
Our diet, however, is something we can easily control and adjust to help nourish our nervous systems, heal our gut and reduce inflammation - and therefore stress. Leading to more energy, less anxiety and an overall improved mood.
NUTRIENTS TO SUPPORT THE NERVOUS SYSTEM
1. B Vitamins
There are eight different B vitamins that all assist slightly different processes in the body. Many B vitamins support energy production and the synthesis of adrenal hormones such as cortisol, a hormone released during the stress response. You can find good sources of B vitamins in brewer's yeast, nutritional yeast, kidney and soybeans, vegemite, sunflower and sesame seeds, pine nuts, almonds, mushrooms, brown rice, avocado, bananas, oats, oysters, kale, brussel sprouts, sardines, swordfish, liver and eggs, healthy fats
2. Omega-3 and omega-6
These are essential fatty acids that we cannot make in our body and need to obtain from our diet. These fatty acids are the building blocks for a healthy nervous system and protect nerves from injury, support growth and development. While omega-6 is considered pro-inflammatory and omega-3 is considered anti-inflammatory, a healthy balance of both is important. As we consume high amounts of omega-6 in today’s fast-food era, reducing trans and saturated fats is key. Foods such as flaxseed, rapeseed and olive oils, sunflower and sesame seeds, cashews, walnuts, almonds, olives, avocados, kale and mustard greens are excellent sources of omega-3. Cold-water fish such as wild-caught salmon and mackerel are also perfect for increasing your healthy fatty acids.
Magnesium is an underrated mineral! Magnesium plays a role in energy production and supporting the health and strength of all the nerve cells in the nervous system. When you consume your recommended daily intakes of magnesium, reduced muscle soreness after workouts, better sleep, less painful periods, and lower blood pressure are commonly experienced (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2006). Foods that are a good source of magnesium include kelp and other seaweeds, oat bran, almonds, cashews, brewer’s yeast, nutritional yeast, buckwheat, brazil nuts, tofu, fish, avocado, apricots, figs, collard greens such as bok choy, kale and brussel sprouts.
When you think of zinc, you think of great hair, skin and nails? I do! But that’s not all it's good for. Zinc is in more chemical reactions in the body than any other mineral. Zinc is super important for brain function and development as well as prevention of mood disorders such as depression. It also has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant components, which are needed for stomach lining repair and protection against nerve injury. Oysters, kale, broccoli, pumpkin seeds, pecans, brazil nuts, oats, almonds, walnuts, lima beans and buckwheat all contain good amounts of zinc.
5. Fibre & probiotics
The concept of the gut-brain axis is based around the impact your gut health has on your mental state and vice versa. If you eat with your gut health in mind, you may experience decreased stress levels, well-balanced blood sugar regulation (to prevent exhaustion and sugar cravings) and all-round good vibes. Healthy fibre to aid in digestion and probiotics to build up your healthy gut microbiota are two of the best ways to do this. Fibre-rich foods include fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes and rich probiotic foods including yoghurt, kefir and fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi.
Read more about Cracked freekeh here
Nourishing your mind and body isn't just about what’s on your plate, it's also how you feel about what’s on your plate. When you eat slowly, mindfully and with gratitude, you are less likely to overeat because you are consciously aware of what you are consuming and more likely to allow your body to stay in a parasympathetic and relaxed state, supporting your metabolism. Comparatively, stressing over your to-do list and inhaling your food absent-mindedly- not good for digestion!
So, here’s some food for thought (see what I did there). If you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed, anxious or just in need of a little body TLC, let food be thy medicine and try some of the above. Your nervous system can thank me later.
By Georgina Cron
3rd Year BHSc (Nutritional Medicine)
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Dinan, T. G., & Cryan, J. F. (2012). Regulation of the stress response by the gut microbiota: implications for psychoneuroendocrinology. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 37(9), 1369–1378. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2012.03.007
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Liang, S., Wu, X., & Jin, F. (2018). Gut-brain psychology: Rethinking psychology from the Microbiota–Gut–Brain axis. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.laureate.net.au/10.3389/fnint.2018.00033