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Diet, Health, Fitness, Lifestyle & Wellness


Can What You Eat Affect Your Mental Health?

By Kelli Miller    WebMD Health News     Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

Aug. 20, 2015 – What’s for dinner? The question is popping up in an unexpected place – the psychiatrist’s office.

More research is finding that a nutritious diet isn’t just good for the body; it’s great for the brain, too. The knowledge is giving rise to a concept called “nutritional (or food) psychiatry.”

“Traditionally, we haven’t been trained to ask about food and nutrition,” says psychiatrist Drew Ramsey, MD, an assistant clinical professor at Columbia University. “But diet is potentially the most powerful intervention we have. By helping people shape their diets, we can improve their mental health and decrease their risk of psychiatric disorders.”

Nearly 1 in 4 Americans have some type of mental illness each year. The CDC says that by 2020, depression will rank as the second leading cause of disability, after heart disease.

It’s not just a problem for adults. Half of all long-term mental disorders start by age 14. Today, childhood mental illness affects more than 17 million kids in the U.S.

Recent studies have shown “the risk of depression increases about 80% when you compare teens with the lowest-quality diet, or what we call the Western diet, to those who eat a higher-quality, whole-foods diet. The risk of attention-deficit disorder (ADD) doubles,” Ramsey says.

A Growing Idea

Just 5 years ago, the idea of nutritional psychiatry barely registered a blip on the health care radar. There had been a few studies examining how certain supplements (like omega-3 fatty acids) might balance mood. Solid, consistent data appeared to be lacking, though.

But experts say many well-conducted studies have since been published worldwide regarding a link between diet quality and common mental disorders – depression and anxiety – in both kids and adults.

“A very large body of evidence now exists that suggests diet is as important to mental health as it is to physical health,” says Felice Jacka, president of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research. “A healthy diet is protective and an unhealthy diet is a risk factor for depression and anxiety.”

There is also interest in the possible role food allergies may play in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, she says.

But nearly all research involving eating habits and mental health has focused more on depression and anxiety. And there’s no direct evidence yet that diet can improve depression or any other mental disorder, although a trial to determine this is now underway.

Experts caution that while diet can be part of a treatment plan, it shouldn’t be considered a substitute for medication and other treatments.

Here’s what they do know about how diet may play a role in mental health. What you eat affects how your immune system works, how your genes work, and how your body responds to stress.

3 Ways Diet Impacts Your Mental Health

Here are some more details on how good nutrition impacts brain health:

1. It’s crucial for brain development.

“We are, quite literally, what we eat,” says Roxanne Sukol, MD, preventive medicine specialist at Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute. “When we eat real food that nourishes us, it becomes the protein-building blocks, enzymes, brain tissue, and neurotransmitters that transfer information and signals between various parts of the brain and body.”

2. It puts the brain into grow mode.

Certain nutrients and dietary patterns are linked to changes in a brain protein that helps increase connections between brain cells. A diet rich in nutrients like omega-3s and zinc boosts levels of this substance.

On the other hand, “a diet high in saturated fats and refined sugars has a very potent negative impact on brain proteins,” Jacka says.


3. It fills the gut with healthy bacteria.

And that’s good for the brain. Trillions of good bacteria live in the gut. They fend off bad germs and keep your immune system in check, which means they help tame inflammation in the body. Some gut germs even help make brain-powering B vitamins.

Foods with beneficial bacteria (probiotics) help maintain a healthy gut environment, or “biome.” “A healthier microbiome is going to decrease inflammation, which affects mood and cognition,” Ramsey says.

A high-fat or high-sugar diet is bad for gut health and, therefore, your brain. Some research hints that a high-sugar diet worsens schizophrenia symptoms, too.

This Is Your Brain On … Kefir?

Certain foods may play a role in the cause of mental disorders, or they may make symptoms worse. A nutritious brain diet follows the same logic as a heart healthy regimen or weight control plan. You want to limit sugary and high-fat processed foods, and opt for plant foods like fresh fruits, veggies, and whole grains. Swap butter for healthy fats like olive oil, too. In other words, try a Mediterranean diet.

It’s “an ideal diet for physical and mental health,” Jacka says. Recent results from a large trial in Europe show that such an eating plan may also help prevent, and not just treat, depression.

The key is to choose foods that pack as many nutrients in as few calories as possible. Nutrients might be particularly helpful for treating or preventing mental illness are:

  • B vitamins. People with low B12 levels have more brain inflammation and higher rates of depression and dementia. Falling short on folate has long been linked to low moods.
  • Iron. Too little iron in the blood (iron-deficiency anemia) has been linked to depression.
  • Omega-3s. These healthy fatty acids improve thinking and memory and, possibly, mood.
  • Zinc. This nutrient helps control the body’s response to stress. Low levels can cause depression. A great source is oysters, which pack 500% of your daily need of zinc but have just 10 calories apiece, Ramsey says. Mussels, which are rich in brain-healthy selenium, are also a good choice.

Also, fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and yogurt with live active cultures, which provide good gut bacteria, may help reduce anxiety, stress, and depression. Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel provide omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, zinc, selenium and other brain boosters. And dark chocolate has antioxidants, which increase blood flow to the brain, aiding mood and memory.

Unfortunately, the Western diet is “extremely low” in these nutrients, Ramsey says. He’s working on a new tool called the Brain Food Scale, to be published later this year. It will provide a quick look at the nutrient-to-calorie relationship.

Does Diet Replace Medicine?

You should always talk to your doctor before stopping or taking less of any medication you’re on.

“No matter where you are on the spectrum of mental health, food is an essential part of your treatment plan,” Ramsey says. “If you are on medications, they are going to work better if you are eating a brain-healthy diet of nutrient-dense foods.”

Ramsey recommends that you talk to your doctor about what you should eat — not just what you shouldn’t. He hopes that one day a simple 5-minute food assessment will become part of every psychiatric evaluation.

Nutritionists like the idea.

“More psychiatrists need to recognize the nutrition-mental health connection,” says Michelle Schoffro Cook, PhD, who is registered by the International Organization of Nutritional Consultants. “We can have so much power over our mental health using food and nutrients.”

Felice Jacka, president of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry (ISNPR) and Associate Professor at Deakin University, Australia.
Drew Ramsey, MD, assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University, inventor of the Brain Food Scale, and co-founder of National Kale Day.
Roxanne Sukol, MD, preventive medicine specialist at Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute.
Michelle Schoffro Cook, PhD, ROHP, registered nutritionist and author of The Probiotic Promise.
Sarris J. The Lancet Psychiatry, May 2015.
Logan AC. Journal of Physiological Anthropology, July 24, 2014.
CDC website: “Mental Health Basics.”
National Alliance on Mental Illness: “Mental Illness Facts and Numbers.”
Gomez-Pinilla F. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care, November 2013.
University of Utah Health Sciences website: “The Human Biome.”
Sánchez-Villegas A. BMC Medicine, 2013. 
Sánchez-Villegas A. Nutritional Neuroscience, 2011. 
Genetics Home Reference website: “BDNF.”
Nehlig A. British Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, Feb. 5, 2013.
News release, Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.
Jacka F. PLOS One, Sept. 21, 2011.
Lakhan S. Nutrition Journal, 2008.
Young S. Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience. March 2007. 
Peet M. British Journal of Psychiatry, 2004.
Ramsey D, Muskin P. Current Psychiatry, January 2013.
Bourre J. The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging, Nov. 5, 2006. 
Selhub E. Journal of Physiological Anthropology, Jan. 15, 2014.

source: WebMD

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Top Vegan Sources of Immune-Boosting Zinc

a Care2 favorite by Michelle Schoffro Cook

Zinc is one of the most critical nutrients needed for maintaining a strong immune system. It’s also imperative for digestion and utilization of carbohydrates like grains, vegetables, fruits, and sugars as well as protein foods.

It helps to ensure healing from wounds and burns and supports healthy prostate function in men. It is necessary for healthy blood, bones, brain, heart, liver, and muscles. If you haven’t already guessed, adequate zinc is essential for great health.

Some of the symptoms of a zinc deficiency include: acne, a small appetite, brittle nails, growing pains or stunted growth in children, diarrhea, difficulty conceiving children, frequent colds or flu, hair or nails grow slowly, loss of sense of smell or taste, prostate disorders or impotence in men, sleep disturbances, and slow-healing wounds or injuries.

pumpkin seeds

There are many plant-based sources of zinc.  Here are some of the best ones:

  • Beans/Legumes, including:  black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, navy beans, pinto beans, Romano beans, etc.
  • Beets and beet greens
  • Brazil nuts (other nuts too but Brazils contain higher amounts)
  • Carrots
  • Dark leafy green vegetables
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Onions
  • Peas
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Seeds like pumpkin and sunflower seeds
  • Sprouts
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Whole grains and breads

Be sure to eat fermented foods as well since zinc tends to become more bioavailable during the fermentation process.  These foods include:  miso, tempeh, sourdough breads, fermented vegetables, sauerkraut, seed and nut cheeses that are fermented, and non-dairy yogurt.

Adapted from The Life Force Diet by Michelle Schoffro Cook, PhD, ROHP.


The Importance of Zinc

by Jane Cronin

Do you suffer from acne, stretch marks, white spots on your nails, poor wound healing, poor immunity? Zinc may have something to do with it. Here we discuss Zinc deficiency, causes, symptoms and why zinc is important.

Zinc is an essential trace mineral and is one of the most abundant to be found in the body.  It is naturally found in some foods, added to others and also available as a dietary supplement. You have approximately 2-3g with around 60% is in the muscles that support your skeleton and 30% is in the bones.   So if nothing else zinc plays an important part in keeping you upright.  The remaining 10% is found in the teeth, hair, nails, skin, liver, leukocytes (white blood cells), prostate, sperm and testes.

So what are some functions of Zinc in the body?

Zinc makes things happen

Zinc is used in by over 100 different enzymes in body, that are involved in the chemical processes of building things that the body needs or breaking down stuff that it doesn’t want.  Here are a couple of examples.

  • Thyroid function – Zinc is used to make the hormone (TRH) that signals the thyroid to make thyroid hormones. It converts the protein we eat into amino acids, including tyrosine which powers the thyroid hormone production. Finally it is involved in the making of T3 the active form that is used in the muscles
  • Formation of bone – Zinc is used by enzymes in the production of collagen and alkaline phosphatase (ALP), which are important for bone formation.  It is also used to make calcitonin, a hormone that inhibits the breakdown of bone.
  • 30% of the zinc found in a cell is found in the nucleus. This makes sense as it is very involved with DNA and the replication of cells and proteins needed by the body.
  • Zinc is important for immunity

Zinc is very important in the first line of defence in our bodies. This first line is represented by physical barriers, such as the skin and mucous membrane linings inside the body.  Zinc is found in the mucous secretions of the respiratory system and on the surfaces of lungs and throat.  It has an antimicrobial effect, so helps to kill inhaled bacteria and viruses before they get chance to take hold.   Zinc is also secreted in the saliva and the mucous membranes of the digestive system to kill any ingested invaders.

However, it is not just supporting the barriers that makes zinc important for immunity.  Zinc also supports white blood cell production and the activating of the B and T cells required by the immune system to fight viruses and bacteria.

Zinc is a great antioxidant

It appears that zinc protects our cell membranes against the oxidative damage that can be caused by other metals in the body, such as iron or copper.  It also forms part of an important antioxidant in the body called superoxide dismutase.  This is used by the liver to bind toxins that are the removed from the body.

What are some common zinc deficiency signs?

  • Poor sense of taste or smellBenefits of Zinc
  • Stretch marks
  • Acne
  • White spots on the nails
  •  Poor growth – mostly in children
  •  Hair loss
  • Anorexia
  • Poor wound healing
  • Chronic and severe diarrhoea
  • Poor immunity
  • Poor night vision
  • Dry skin

What can cause deficiency?

  • Phytates that can be found in wholegrain, rice, corn and legumes can reduce absorption.  This means that strict vegetarians and vegans are at risk of low zinc as these foods often contribute highly to their diet.
  • Zinc absorption is impaired by iron, copper and calcium
  • Oral contraceptive
  • High perspiration – so athletes can lose a lot in sweat
  • Diarrhoea – people with persistent diarrhoea can become deficient.  This can include people with inflammatory bowel disease and other digestive conditions with impaired absorption.
  • Diabetes, liver or kidney disease
  • Caffeine and high alcohol intake
  • Antacids and antibiotics
  • Stress – zinc decreases and copper increases in stress
pumpkin seeds

Testing for Zinc deficiency

  • Serum zinc – Measures zinc in the blood stream
  • Hair Testing – Zinc is one of the minerals that can be tested through hair analysis
  • Zinc oral taste test –This test is often done in pharmacies.  It works by taking a mild zinc solution into the mouth and assessing by what you can taste.  Results are assessed as follows:
  • Grade 1 (Poor zinc status) – No specific taste or sensation.  Just like water
  • Grade 2 ((Mild deficiency) – No initial taste, but gradually starts to taste dry, mineral like, furry or sweet
  • Grade 3 (Good zinc status) – A definite taste straight away that intensifies over time
  • Grade 4 (Optimal zinc status) – Strong unpleasant metallic taste immediately that does not go away for agesBe aware that too much zinc is also a bad thing. Zinc toxicity symptoms include nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, abdominal cramps, diarrhea and headaches. Ensure you get yourself tested.

What foods are high in Zinc?

  • Animal proteins such as chicken, lamb, beef, eggs
  • Fish and seafood especially oysters
  • Vegetarian sources include nuts, legumes, wholegrains, miso, tofu, brewer’s yeast, mushrooms, green beans, seeds (like pumpkin, sesame), green leafy vegetables, avocado
  • Sea vegetables like kelp and spirulina

Practical applications of zinc

Eye health

As one of the deficiency signs of zinc is poor night vision, you can see it is important for eye health.  Locally its antioxidant actions help to protect the eye from age related macular degeneration caused by oxidative damage.   Zinc is also needed by the liver to synthesise vitamin A, which is very important for good eyesight.  It is also part of the mechanism to transport it in the blood to the eye area.

Healthy skin

Zinc found in the skin has antioxidant properties that provide UV protection.  Due to its importance in the production of collagen it is important for wound healing and makes it important for dry and allergic skin conditions.  It is very beneficial in the treatment of acne. This is due to its role in the regulate oil glands and also because of its anti-inflammatory actions in the skin. If you think of teenage boys, needing lots of zinc for growth and sexual development, with acne,  zinc is perfect.

Men’s Health

Traditionally oysters are known as an aphrodisiac and this may be due to their high zinc content. Since zinc is shown to be stored in the prostate, sperm and testes, you can imagine it must be beneficial to men’s health.  Research has shown that supplementation of zinc can increase sperm count, motility and morphology.

With regards to prostate health zinc can help to reduce the chances of prostate enlargement. This is  important for men over 50, as they are at increased risk  of BHP (Benign prostatic hyperplasia).

Mood and Brain health

Amounts of zinc can be found in the brain and it has been shown to reduce oxidative damage. Oxidative damage of the brain is linked to the progression of some diseases, such Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Regarding mood, zinc has a calming effect on the brain and deficiencies can lead to agitation and mood swings.  Zinc can be depleted by stress and copper is increased.  The balance of these two minerals is important for balanced mood.  Low levels of zinc have been found in those with major depression and there is a hypothesized link between zinc and serotonin uptake in the brain.  There have also been studies showing benefits for children with autism and ADHD. There are also links between low zinc and post natal depression.


Zinc is one nutrient you can look at to improve your immune system to try and prevent those ills and chills.  There is also data to suggest that if you catch something zinc supplementation can help to move it on much quicker.