You have probably heard the old saying "you are what you eat" and to a large extent, it is true! Using nutrition to optimize brain wellbeing and prevent mental health conditions is known as nutritional psychiatry and can be a great tool for you to add to your mental wellbeing toolbox as an athlete.
Some guiding principles I recommend regarding nutrition and optimizing brain health amongst athletes:
Eating enough calories is key for athletes and optimizing mental health
Food should be considered but it is NOT a silver bullet for mental health!
Food over supplements as much as possible
Thinking above and beyond dietary tribes. The goal is to increase nutrient density and this can be done in a lot of different ways!
Focusing on a joy-based relationship with food (versus fear-based)
Making simple food swaps instead of a full overhaul
So how does food exactly affect mood?
It comes down to the nutrients in our food and the roles that they play in complex biochemical reactions in our bodies that result in the production of brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters. The main neurotransmitters we think of in psychiatry are serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, glutamate, and GABA. So what we know is that Vitamin B1, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12, folate, magnesium, and zinc are all linked to making these neurotransmitters which in turn, supports our brain health (and therefore mental health!).
Other nutrients have anti-inflammatory properties including omega 3 fatty acids and curcumin (found in turmeric), as well as microorganisms in the gut. While the research is still ongoing, scientists think that to an extent, depression is (or can be) an inflammatory disease and therefore, the anti-inflammatory properties of omega 3 fatty acids and microbiota in the gut can improve depressive symptoms.
In the next post, I will share more about specific food categories to focus on and practical tips for how to optimize your eating to support your mental health as an athlete.