Foods to CALM The Mind
By: Dr. Uma Naidoo
Michelin-starred chef David Bouley described Dr. Uma Naidoo as the world’s first “triple threat” in the food and medicine space: a Harvard-trained psychiatrist, professional chef graduating with her culinary schools’ most coveted award, and a trained Nutrition Specialist. Her nexus of interests have found their niche in Nutritional Psychiatry.
In our modern world, we are all seemingly ‘amped up’ more than ever as we need long lasting energy to power through busy workdays, family time, social time and even the personal time we take for physical activity, chores, and errands. Through these busy schedules, many of us are constantly under a form of stress. The term ‘eustress’ refers to the healthy form of stress that motivates us to study extra hours for an upcoming test or spend time preparing for an important work presentation. However, when this response becomes chronic or we are not able to relieve stress as we move from one stressful event to the next, it can begin to hinder one’s quality of life and lead to undesirable health benefits, including inflammation and anxiety. In Nutritional Psychiatry, I aim to address symptoms of chronic stress and anxiety strategically through addressing gut health, inflammation, the connection to our immune system, and the power of calming foods.
Via the gut brain connection, we know the powerful relationship that these two organs have and understand the notion that the health of one directly influences the health of the other. Science has also revealed that the microbiome, one’s unique collection of gut microbes, can be a strong contributor to anxiety if not appropriately balanced. This imbalance contributes to an inflamed gut which translates to an inflamed brain. Considerable evidence tells us that brain inflammation is increased in those with anxiety, so understanding which foods are most inclined to contribute to chronic inflammation and avoiding them, is a powerful step for calming an anxious mind. I like to remember these as CALMS!
Colors, Vitamin C, Chickpeas & Chocolate!
One of my Pillars of Nutritional Psychiatry is to ‘Eat the Rainbow’! When I wrote my new book, Calm Your Mind with Food, I researched the many additional micronutrients that our bodies and mind need. When we consume an abundance of colorful plant foods like fruits, veggies, and legumes, we ensure that we are consuming a variety of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants for healthy brain function as well as fiber for a healthy gut! Vitamin C specifically acts as an antioxidant in the brain to fight off free radicals that may contribute to anxiety. Based on this I created a Kaleidoscope Salad to boost the calming effect of these brain nutrients.
Kiwis, citrus fruit, and red bell pepper are all loaded with vitamin C! I also love chickpeas as they are a rich source of choline, a nutrient that plays a critical role in neurotransmitter function for healthy cognition.
Another favorite brain food is dark chocolate that is 80% cacao or higher. Cacao is loaded with flavonols which help increase blood flow to the brain, as well as magnesium and valeric acid, two nutrients that have been shown to calm the central nervous system and therefore reduce stress.
Anthocyanins and Ashwagandha
You have likely heard that blueberries are one of the healthiest fruits you can consume for brain health, but do you know what makes them so healthy? It is their abundance of antioxidant anthocyanins that give them their beautiful blue hue! Anthocyanins are one of the most powerful antioxidants found in foods and it helps to reduce the damage caused by free radicals that leads to inflammation and stress.
Ashwagandha is another plant derived component of a calming diet. It is an adaptogenic flower that has been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine to relieve stress and anxiety naturally. It can be consumed as tea or taken as a supplement.
Staying adequately hydrated is a pivotal practice for remaining calm, cool, and collected! But remember, not all beverages are made equal. Set this foundation with at least 8 cups of water per day which you can flavor with lemon, cucumber, mint leaves, or other sliced fruits. In the morning I regularly enjoy an energizing, antioxidant rich turmeric latte which helps reduce inflammation for a stress-free start to the day. I also love green tea in the afternoon as l-theanine helps to increase focus and concentration or passionflower tea in the evening as it has mild sedative effects for a calming night’s sleep.
Did you know that 60% of the brain is made of fats? Specifically, the omega-3 essential fatty acids DHA & EPA. These fatty acids have strong antioxidant properties to reduce inflammation while they also support optimal neurotransmitter function as well as healthy brain tissue. Because they are ‘essential’, we must get them through food. Wild caught fatty fish like sardines, mackerel, anchovies, and salmon are among the richest sources of omega 3’s. They can also be found in plant foods like walnuts, flax seeds, and chia seeds, but these plant sources contain the omega-3 fatty acid ALA which must be converted in the body to EPA or DHA for it to be beneficial. It is important to note that this conversion rate is relatively low so those who follow a plant-based diet may consider an algal oil supplement.
I love cooking with an abundance of spices for added flavor and health benefits! The antioxidant curcumin, found in turmeric, is an incredibly powerful antioxidant that can relieve anxiety and ward off neurodegeneration. Always be sure to combine turmeric with a pinch of black pepper as it helps to boost the effects of curcumin by 2000%! I also love adding cayenne and cinnamon powders to spice up meals as they can help increase energy levels while clearing away brain fog. Ginger root is a delicious addition to sauces and soups that supports gut health and reduced neuroinflammation. All spices are rich in micronutrients and have various medicinal properties, so find your favorites and have fun testing various ways to add them to your food!
Keep these CALM foods in mind as you begin to adjust your diet to reduce stress and anxiety and you will be sure to start feeling more energized, focused and calm!