As health professionals, internal medicine doctors pride themselves on having a more personal approach to medicine because they tend to work with people who suffer from chronic, often severe, illnesses. They also look at their patient’s health through a holistic lens in order to determine the root of their health issues. And thus, these MDs tend to have some compelling insight when it comes to how, say, your diet affects your mood.
“Our brains are a reflection of what we put into our bodies, and one of the most important ways that we influence them is the quality of what we eat,” says internal medicine doctor Austin Perlmutter, MD, author and Senior Director of Science and Clinical Innovation at Big Bold Health. “A brain-nutrient rich diet—of which the Mediterranean diet is a great example—may help support the brain and specifically mental health through pathways that range from neurotransmitters to inflammation to the gut-brain axis.”
Look, things get a little complicated when you whip out the term “gut-brain axis,” but the TL; DR is this: A growing body of research suggests that since about 95 percent of your serotonin (a happiness hormone) is produced in your gut, and your gut is lined with nerves and neurons, what goes in your belly may affect the quality of your mood. And thus, when you’re feeding your belly, you’re also feeding your brain. I know, I know: Science is cool.
Ready to start priming your brain for a better outlook on life? Ahead, Dr. Perlmutter name drops the big three nutrients you need to boost your mood (and includes a grocery shopping list to help you check out with your brain in mind). Ready to eat?
The ‘big 3’ mood-boosting nutrients, according to an internal medicine doctor
1. Omega-3 fats
You may already know that omega-3 fatty acids are basically the prom queen of fatty acids. And according to Dr. Perlmutter, incorporating more of them into your diet can seriously pep up your brain.
“Omega-3 fats can be found in plant foods like nuts and seeds, but the omega-3s that have been best studied for their link to mental health are docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and especially eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA)—which are primarily found in higher concentrations in cold-water fish like salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring and anchovies, as well as in supplement forms,” says Dr. Perlmutter.
There’s also evidence that omega-3s can help reduce clinical anxiety and could ease symptoms of depression, although more research is needed. And beyond the brain, omega-3s also boost blood flow, improve skin health, and contribute to the overall health of cell membranes.
Learn more about the benefits of omega-3s:
“Polyphenols are a large group—think thousands—of plant molecules. Eating certain types of antioxidant-rich polyphenols has been linked to lower risk for depression, while other research suggests that eating more polyphenols overall may be helpful for overall mental status and brain protection against certain types of dementia,” says Dr. Perlmutter.
Polyphenols are commonly found in fruits and veggies (particularly in berries, red onions, and tempeh), as well as coffee, tea, dark chocolate, and spices like turmeric and cloves.
Relatively new to the field of scientific research, probiotics are on the rise as a nutrient that may be majorly beneficial to your brain. “A myriad of recent studies have suggested that one of the biggest ways we can influence our brains is through the health of our gut, including the microbes that live there. That’s in part because our gut is where the majority of our immune system is located, and these immune cells may affect what gets into our bloodstream and therefore influences our brains,” says Dr. Perlmutter.
While more studies need to be conducted on probiotics, Dr. Perlmutter notes that you can try promoting a healthy gut-brain connection by eating more prebiotic foods, or foods that feed the good bacteria in the gut. “For those who can tolerate it without significant GI issues, eating more leafy greens, whole grains may be a good place to start, and if you want to get specific, dandelion greens, Jerusalem artichoke, garlic, onions and leeks are thought to be excellent sources of prebiotic fiber,” he says.