8 Go-To Foods This Nutritional Psychiatrist Eats For Better Brain Function
When it comes to taking brain health into our own hands, our food choices seem to be the simplest thing we can control. Take it from board-certified psychiatrist, professional chef, and nutrition specialist Uma Naidoo, M.D.: A triple threat in the "food as medicine" space, she has seen powerful results in her patients who make simple dietary swaps to optimize their mental health.
And even if you don't meet a certain mental health diagnosis, she says, strengthening your brain function with food is always a good idea. "You're going to eat every day, so why not pack in the foods that will give you a better brain function?" she shares on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast.
Below, the eight brain foods she swears by for better mental health:
Beans and legumes
Research has shown the gut directly affects the brain—there is a channel connecting the two (commonly dubbed the gut-brain connection or gut-brain axis1) that allows the gut and brain to communicate back and forth. That said, any gut-healthy food is also simultaneously brain-healthy. Enter, fiber-rich beans and legumes. These plant-based sources feed the healthy microbes in your gut by supplying them with fiber.
In terms of which beans and legumes to reach for, Naidoo is partial to black beans: "They are rich in magnesium, and that seems to be deficient in extremely anxious individuals." In fact, studies have shown that a deficiency in magnesium can kick-start the sympathetic nervous system (when this sympathetic nervous system is on overdrive, it can lead to increased anxiety).
On the subject of gut-healthy foods, we'd be remiss not to discuss probiotics. That’'s where yogurt comes in, as this fermented food supplies those healthy bacteria to your gut. "It fortifies your gut by bringing back the good bugs you need to thrive. It's an easy step we can pretty much do today," Naidoo explains. And while she loves plain dairy yogurt, she mentions you can also opt for a nondairy version with live active cultures. Just make sure you purchase a plain option, as fruit-flavored versions can include tons of sugar. To make it just as sweet, she's partial to topping a parfait with cinnamon and berries.
Chocolate lovers, lean in: Yes, dark chocolate has its fair share of antioxidants (polyphenols, to be exact, which can help neutralize free radicals and fight oxidative stress). But according to Naidoo, there's another reason dark chocolate ranks high on her list of brain food: "Organic dark chocolate has an added advantage. The process is fermented, so it's also a fermented food in that way." It's true—cacao beans are fermented, dried, roasted, then removed from their shells (it's also what gives dark chocolate its slightly tart taste). Just make sure you're buying organic, raw dark chocolate or one with at least 70% cacao content.
Ah, the mighty avocado. It's beloved for its healthy fat content, but Naidoo especially loves the fruit for its fiber and magnesium. "A quarter of a medium-size avocado a day gives healthy fiber and fat. It also has magnesium, which has shown to be helpful for depression2."
"Omega-3s have been studied in anxiety as well," notes Naidoo. Specifically, one study shows that omega-3 fats can decrease stress3, and another demonstrates that diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids can help promote a healthy emotional balance and positive mood. That's why Naidoo stocks up on sustainably sourced salmon; in fact, she says it's on regular rotation in her fridge.
Eggs are naturally chock-full of melatonin, says Naidoo, which can help you reach deeper sleep. (She even mentions an omelet is one of the best dinners to prepare your body for sleep.) And because a healthy sleep schedule is imperative for healthy brain function4, foods that naturally promote sleep should make it onto your plate, especially in the evening. If you can't tolerate eggs, she mentions soybeans and quinoa also contain the amino acid L-ornithine, which has been shown to improve sleep quality5.
According to Naidoo, a balance of pre- and probiotic-rich foods is important for that gut-brain connection. Now, we've discussed probiotics at length, but one of her prebiotic-rich favorites is none other than jicama: "It's so easy to work with when you get used to it. It's super crunchy—you can add it to a salad, dip it into hummus, or grate it," she says. And because it has a mild flavor, you can add it to a multitude of dishes, be it a crunchy kale slaw or vegan "cheese fries."
Naidoo is a fan of spices for their flavor and nutritional value: "Spices can change any meal, and they have different health benefits." One of her favorite spices for brain health? Chili pepper. It has a high anti-inflammatory profile, and Naidoo notes it can help with mood, energy, and immunity. The research prevails: One animal study found that the capsaicin from chili peppers can reduce depressive symptoms6. Additionally, another study found that people who consume chili peppers on a regular basis reduced their risk of dying from heart attacks and cerebrovascular deaths (like strokes).
By adding a mix of fibrous, anti-inflammatory, pre- and probiotic-rich foods, you can better optimize your brain function. Of course, we all have entirely unique gut microbiomes, so not every food will affect all of us in the same exact way. But try adding Naidoo's superstar brain foods to your next grocery list, and see how you feel—they're certainly not the only brain-healthy foods out there (find 20 more here), but consider them easy starter staples.
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.