6 Nutrition Tips to Enhance Mental Performance

research Jan 16, 2020


By Shannon Thompson

My professional specialty is mental performance enhancement. This means that it is my job to optimize the mental skills of people, and guide them in the direction of further skill growth. Most of my days are spent talking with individuals who are chasing meaningful goals. I address numerous mental challenges related to these goals, and work with them using a wide range of strategies. My techniques often aim to strengthen focus, manage emotions, increase motivation, reduce performance anxiety, or simply provide exercises to those wondering what they can do to maximize their efforts. 

Some of the people I work with respond better to my methods than others. I’ve always accepted this variation in responsiveness as inherent to the nature of any craft. One common factor that impacts responsiveness is underlying mental health issues. Lingering struggles with anxiety and depression certainly affect a person’s ability to utilize mental performance strategies. I have a few tools of my own to work with these issues, but I also often refer people to experts in this field. I’ve presumed that anxiety and depression is predominantly associated with a difficult upbringing, a trauma, or a chemical imbalance, and best treated with talk therapy, and occasionally medication. That is until a friend told me that I had to read a particular book. In fact, he purchased the book on Amazon and had it shipped to my house. The book is titled, “A Mind Of Your Own,” and is written by psychiatrist, Kelly Brogan. The subject matter addresses diet and lifestyle factors that impact mental health.  Within her writing, Dr. Brogan adamantly shares information about how our diets in particular affect our brains. She explains that one contributor (she sometimes goes as far as to say “cause”) to conditions of depression and anxiety could be overall inflammation within the body as a result of diet and lifestyle problems, and describes how depression and anxiety could be symptoms of this inflammation. Through her psychiatry practice (she specializes with women) she treats depression and anxiety symptoms through nutrition and lifestyle adjustments. She reports enormous success when it comes to alleviating symptoms using these methods.

As I stated above, the primary focus of my work is performance enhancement, not alleviating mental illness. However, often we cannot gain full use of mental performance strategies until these struggles are eased. I am constantly exploring my clients’ pasts, and the beliefs and thought patterns that they have developed over the years. Sometimes people’s histories clearly explain their current harmful thought patterns, but other times they do not. I have clients whose childhoods were happy, and who have experienced no obvious trauma, who nevertheless are suffering with symptoms of depression and anxiety. Sometimes a person with a difficult upbringing undergoes psychotherapy, only to find that she is still feeling down or on edge. I’ve been told “nothing bad has ever happened to me,” “I’ve talked about this with my therapist a ton,” and repeatedly, “why do I still feel this way?” I have puzzled over these questions. I have considered that some people are just unlucky regarding their neurochemistry, and are genetically predisposed to depressive and anxious feelings. I had not considered the role of diet when it comes to improving these puzzling cases.

Now, to be clear, I believe there are a multitude of explanations for depression and anxiety. Science is hard at work trying to clarify them. Difficult childhoods, genetic neurochemistry, traumatic events, unhelpful thought patterns, and more, have all been found to be related to mental health struggles. The intent of this article is to spread the word that diet, and other lifestyle factors, could also play a role. I’m especially curious if adjustments associated with the list below, could help those who have explored all obvious causes for their mental health struggles, and are still suffering. In addition, even if someone is not struggling with mental health issues, I’m curious if following these suggestions could enhance mood, mental clarity, rate of learning, creativity and more. I offer these suggestions through my belief that “every little bit helps,” sometimes a little, and sometimes a lot. I also want to be clear that all of the suggestions listed below (and within Dr. Brogan’s book) are strongly supported by empirical research and practice. Science experiments support the value of these ideas, as do expert eye-witness accounts of their effectiveness. 

1. Eliminate Processed Foods

What is processed food? Dr. Brogan says that processed food is, “broadly, anything in a package.” Processed food can also be identified by a long, unpronounceable ingredient list. Brogan advises us to be on the lookout for hydrogenated vegetable oils, preservatives, dyes, and sugars. She suggests that we avoid refined carbohydrates and flour. Instead she recommends using sweet potato, dense grains (amaranth, buckwheat, millet), quinoa and rice as our carbohydrate sources.

2. Eat Whole Foods

Whole foods are typically those that grow directly from the earth. Personally, I have found that eating large quantities of green vegetables notably improves my mood. In her book, Dr. Brogan explains that we should make sure that some of the whole foods we are consuming are organically grown. This is because some fruits and vegetables that are not grown organically are sprayed with a substance called glyphosate (which is the main ingredient in the herbicide, Roundup). Glyphosate has been found to be related to birth defects, cancer, and an unbalanced gut flora, which impairs immune function.

3. Eat Natural Fats (don’t avoid or restrict them)

Unmodified, natural fats are extremely beneficial for our mental health, especially if they come from animals or plants. Dr. Brogan explains that people who complain of sugar-driven mood and anxiety problems often find great relief once they are regularly consuming healthy fats. Good sources of healthy fat are: cold-water fish, flax oil, macadamia oil, grass fed meats, eggs, nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocado, and dark chocolate.

4. Use Probiotics

One of the most up to date and well-researched findings on the subject of diet and mental health, is the role of gut flora (the bacteria in our stomach’s) on our mood. Dr. Brogan shares numerous studies where the administration of probiotics have reversed certain psychological disorders.  Brogan advises us to “look for high-quality probiotics (the ones in the refrigerated area of the grocery store) that contain a variety of strains in the billions.” I also received advice from my naturopathic doctor to rotate different brands of probiotics, thus increasing your exposure to a wide range of bacterial cultures.

5. Avoid Sugar, Gluten, and Dairy (in some cases)

In her book, Dr. Brogan extensively covers the negative impact of sugar, gluten, and processed dairy on our mental health. Drawing from extensive empirical research she explains that consuming these in our foods is related to the release of harmful chemicals crossing the blood-brain barrier, greater overall inflammation, and the reduced ability to absorb essential nutrients that are necessary for optimal health (including optimal emotional health). Here are brief excerpts from her comments on sugar, gluten, and processed dairy:

Sugar

“In addition to contributing to the mood and anxiety roller-coaster, all forms of sugar cause changes in our cell membranes, arteries, immune system, hormones, and gut. Sugar is pretty much a metabolic nightmare that we weren’t built to tolerate… If you need a touch of sweetness, use coconut sap sugar, honey, or maple syrup.”

Gluten

“When digested or partially digested, gluten creates peptides that, once through the gut barrier, stimulate the brain and immune system in inflammatory and even mind-altering ways.”

Dairy

Dr. Brogan encourages us to eat raw dairy (unpasteurized, unhomogenized) as opposed to processed dairy. This is because raw dairy is normally “free of the A1 protein found in most commercially produced milk, including organic milk.” “The A1 protein has been found to aggravate depression as well as other neurological conditions such as autism and schizophrenia. Additionally, properties within processed dairy are contributors to inflammation. 

6. Get Tested and Consider Supplements

Dr. Brogan writes a great deal about how certain hormonal problems and vitamin/ mineral deficiencies can masquerade as mental health problems. For example, faulty thyroid or cortisol function can impact mental health. She recommends getting numerous tests to rule these out deficiencies as the source of mental health problems. In fact, she lists too many to include all of them here. Below, I have included the tests and supplements that have been relevant to me personally, and also have been applicable to individuals in my care:

Thyroid function: specifically TSH, free T4, free T3, reverse T3, TPOAB, and TGAB (I know that you don’t know what these stand for, but your doctor or naturopath will)

Salivary cortisol: This is an assessment of your adrenal function, which is related to your stress system. Optimal cortisol balance is related to improved stress resilience and sleep.

Vitamin B12: Dr. Brogan explains that the “B-Vitamins are the body’s prime molecules for making mood-building biochemical’s. Research has found that higher levels of B vitamins are related to lower levels of depression. When it comes to supplementing B vitamins, Dr. Brogan recommends natural folate (as opposed to folic acid), and the methyltetrahydrofolate version of B12.  For some, regular administration of B12 by injection is “the last antidepressant they ever need.”

Magnesium: Magnesium can be a natural aid to reduce anxiety. Dr. Brogan recommends magnesium glycinate in doses over 300mg per day.

Rhodiola:  Rhodiola is an herb that is sometimes referred to as “Arctic” or golden root. This herb has been found to increase resistance to stress. Brogan explains that “evidence suggests that it’s an antioxidant with the ability to boost immune system function, and can even increase athletic and sexual energy.” Research has found rhodiola consumption to be related to reduced anxiety. She recommends starting with 100mg per day for a week, and then increasing the dose by 100 mg/ week, up to 400mg per day. She advises us to seek products that contain 2 to 3 percent rosavin and 0.8 to 1 percent salidroside.

The list above is an extremely abbreviated version of the information Dr. Brogan has to share. I have prioritized the information most relevant to the population I work with: those seeking mental performance enhancement, and who also struggle with persistent, sometimes mysterious mental health struggles. I would strongly recommend her book. Within it you will find  the in depth rationale underlying her assertions, more detailed instructions, and even recipes to follow. I also strongly recommend consulting with a doctor or naturopathic doctor. If you choose to integrate any of these adjustments into your life, my advice is to implement them slowly. Make one change at a time. Wait until an adjustment has started to become automatic before moving on to the next. Initially, this method might feel painfully slow, but it is the most likely to be sustainable long-term.  Dr. Brogan reports witnessing enormous, positive, change in her clients after implementing many of her recommendations. My wish for you is a healthy mind that is able to learn, grow, and perform optimally. Stick with it, be patient, and know that changing habits is a process. 

About the Author 

Shannon Thompson is a mental performance consultant who specializes in high performance sport. Shannon holds a Master of Applied Positive Psychology degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

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