Can eating healthy brain food from plants grown in CEA improve mental health?
“The part can never be well until the whole is well” – Plato
In a new series we discuss healthy foods from the aspect of people who are already suffering from an illness. A diagnosis is likely a time in your life when you reflect on bad habits or unfortunate genetics leading to disease.
Mental health is an incredibly complex subject and if you are suffering it could be for an infinite number of reasons. It is important to stress that our brains and cognitive function are the most complex in the animal kingdom with billions of neurons interconnecting to send signals to our body to function properly. We are all suffering a degree of mental health issues because of uncertainty over the outcome of the pandemic.
Not all plants can be grown to maturity in a controlled environment like a greenhouse or a vertical farm but they can be initiated in tissue culture to precipitate clean production of virus free clones. A huge advantage of CEA is pesticide free production which has benefits for overall health and is significant in terms of cognitive function.
Over 50% of US consumers have tried or are interested in functional food and drink that can aid sleep, is calming or helps with relaxation.
Backed by growing scientific evidence, diet is well accepted as an important factor in mental wellbeing in addition to physical health, with more consumers turning to nutrition to support stress management and help improve sleep and concentration.
Well where to start with this?
We are born with the equal senses of taste, smell, hearing, touch and vision and our relationship with food stems from these early childhood experiences and habits.
We predominantly use four senses in fueling our bodies and they are integral to how we behave and interact with food. At birth we have a sense for only one food and instinctively know the smell. As we are weaned we explore by seeing and touching new foods, building ever increasing tastes, textures and smells using these senses to find the most desirable foods. Mothers know instinctively that simple plant based foods are the most gentle on the gut and can form a million new neural connections (synapses) every second, more than at any other time in life. It is a fine balance introducing ever increasing complex carbohydrates and proteins. Combined with a good night’s sleep we build these neural pathways which sets the scene for a good long lasting relationship with food. This is probably the last point in our lives when every minute detail of what we eat is scrutinised as our ambition for our young is to consume organic, pesticide free, additive free foods that will lead to good gut health, good sleep patterns and ultimately a healthy life.
How you are raised can build the right relationship with food for the rest of your life. But this does not mean life events cannot derail the process. So in thinking about the chain of life, when does our mental health become a problem in relation to food? Life events, illness, bereavement, bullying, peer pressures, corporate advertising, stressful pandemic lockdown events can all be detrimental to how we feel about food. Comfort eating, convenience eating, eating alone, lacking the skills and knowledge, or coming from a disadvantaged background can all lead to longer term issues with food. These events all affect our mental health as much as our physical health and if you have little or negative support around you then it is a difficult cycle to break.
Our relationship with good food habits takes willpower
There is no magic bullet. It takes hard work, perseverance, planning and determination to better yourself. Advertising for fast convenient foods packed with additives are all around us. My local supermarket unusually has muffins, sweets and crisps on special offer at the entrance on shelves close to fruit and vegetables. So how do we resist and get round the aisles without loading our carts with foods that are bad for not only our physical health but wear down our mental health as we believe the glossy marketing that a product is a superfood in the hope we don’t read the small print? If we are already suffering depression or poor mental health it can be even harder to navigate the supermarket.
One way is to pick out shops that only sell fruit and vegetables, make a list from recipes that can be easily prepared at home and stick to a budget. Even better, why not buy direct from a farm shop, in fact many CEA producers have their own distribution networks, delivering straight to your door. During lockdowns some farmers have adapted to selling online via local enterprises with real success.
Combined with a healthy lifestyle, functional foods offer great potential to improve health and wellbeing.
What elements are good for the brain and mental health?
The nervous system is an integral part of the human body and includes the brain, spinal cord, a vast network of nerves and neurons, all of which are responsible for a majority of our bodily function. We are prone to thinking mental health is solely about our feelings but there are dietary factors that impact physiological changes to improve how we feel.
Exposure to unknown levels of pesticides can cause neurotoxic effects or exacerbate pre existing chemical damage to the nervous system. But CEA paves the way for safer pesticide free food that can boost the nervous system and reduce depression.
About 60% of the brain is made of fat, and half of that fat is Omega 3. Omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and Omega-6 fatty acids are essential fatty acids that we need from food because the body cannot synthesize them. The body uses ALA and Omega-6 fatty acids to make DHA fatty acids in the brain, essential for the brain to function properly. Your brain uses Omega-3s to build brain and nerve cells, and these fats are essential for learning and memory. Gray matter contains most of these nerve cells involved in control of decision making, memory and emotions. Omega 3 has additional benefits for your brain and may slow age-related mental decline and lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. On the flip side, not getting enough Omega-3 is linked to learning impairments, as well as depression.
Just like plants we need the following elements to ensure our neural networks operate at optimal levels:
Zinc is crucial for nerve signaling and deficiency has been linked to many neurological conditions, including Alzheimer’s, depression and Parkinson’s.
Magnesium: Magnesium is essential for learning and memory. Low magnesium levels are linked to many neurological diseases, including migraines, depression and epilepsy.
Copper: Your brain uses copper to help control nerve signals. When copper levels are irregular, there’s a higher risk of neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s.
Iron: Iron deficiency is often characterized by brain fog and impaired brain function.
Eating sufficient amounts of vitamin C rich foods can also protect against age-related mental decline and Alzheimer’s disease. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant that helps fight off the free radicals that damage brain cells.
There are many well known plants used to boost our moods, many unsurprisingly are addictive so it is vital to have a well balanced and varied diet.
Remember a little is better than a lot!
Coffee and Tea are good for your brain in different ways
Caffeine in coffee has a number of positive effects on the brain, including increased alertness. Caffeine keeps your brain alert by blocking adenosine, a chemical messenger that makes you sleepy. Caffeine may also boost some of your “feel-good” neurotransmitters, such as serotonin.
One study found that when participants drank one large coffee in the morning or smaller amounts throughout the day, they were more effective at tasks that required concentration. Drinking coffee over the long term is also linked to a reduced risk of neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. This could be partly due to coffee’s high concentration of antioxidants. So a shot in the morning is a good thing.
As is the case with coffee, the caffeine in many teas including black, oolong and green tea boosts brain function. Green tea is made from unoxidized leaves so it is one of the less processed types of tea. Green tea in particular has been found to improve alertness, performance, memory and focus. Even if you make a small lifestyle change this will help lower the risk of stroke when added to your diet.
But green tea also has other components that make it a brain-healthy beverage. One of the active compounds is L-theanine, an amino acid that can cross the blood-brain barrier and increase the activity of the neurotransmitter GABA, which helps reduce anxiety and makes you feel more relaxed.
L-theanine also increases the frequency of alpha waves in the brain, which helps you relax without making you feel tired. One review found that the L-theanine in green tea can help you relax by counteracting the stimulating effects of caffeine. It’s also rich in polyphenols like catechins such as EGCG (also found in raspberries, strawberries and blueberries ) that may protect the brain from mental decline and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
We have talked about blueberries in previous blogs but how are they good for our moods. Blueberries and other deeply colored berries deliver anthocyanins to brain cells, protecting against both oxidative stress and inflammation, conditions that contribute to brain aging and neurodegenerative diseases. Some of the antioxidants in blueberries have been found to accumulate in the brain and help improve communication between brain cells. See our previous blog on growing blueberries in CEA, generally grown in Tissue culture to create diversity of crop ready traits.
This deep-yellow spice is a key ingredient in curry powder and has a number of benefits for the brain. Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, can cross the blood-brain barrier, meaning it can directly enter the brain and benefit the cells there. It’s a potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound that has been linked to many brain benefits particularly improving memory in people with Alzheimer’s. It may also help clear the amyloid plaques in people with Alzheimer’s. It boosts serotonin and dopamine, which both improve mood. One study found curcumin improved depression symptoms just as much as an antidepressant over six weeks.
Curcumin boosts brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a type of growth hormone that helps brain cells grow. It may also play a factor in delaying age-related mental decline. Remember bioavailability of turmeric on its own is poor but it is vastly improved when combined with piperine from black pepper to create a curcumin complex. This is a focus of new research. See our post on Turmeric for hints and tips on growing in hydroponics.
Most of us know hops (Humulus lupulus) as the bitter constituent of beer but they are also part of the Cannabaceae family. Hops are commonly used orally for anxiety, insomnia, restlessness, tension, excitability, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), nervousness, and irritability. Early research shows that drinking non-alcoholic beer containing hops at dinner can reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep by about 8 minutes in nurses working rotating or night shifts. But caution, more is not better as it can cause over drowsiness.
Combine valerian root (Valeriana officinalis) with hops for a more effective solution for settled natural sleep. It appears to work by increasing levels of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) in the brain. GABA is what’s known as an “inhibitory neurotransmitter”—it quiets the activity of the neurons of the central nervous system, which helps lower anxiety and boost feelings of relaxation and calm.
Eating dark chocolate can help reduce anxiety and improve symptoms of clinical depression and stress. A recent study found people who ate dark chocolate in two 24-hour periods had 70% reduced odds of reporting depressive symptoms than those who did not eat chocolate.
Chocolate comes from Cacao plants predominantly grown in Central America and Africa. It can take up to four years to harvest the pods. Watch the Hairy bikers Route 66 adventure (45mins in if you want to skip) and see how chocolate is produced from Cacao by artisan chocolatiers in Santa Fe.
Dark chocolate has been shown to reduce the stress markers cortisol and adrenaline in urine and p-credos and hippurate in the gut. Some brain-protecting nutrients are particularly prominent in dark chocolate. Theobromine is an adenosine-agonist that has rapid effects on energy and cognition. The fatty acid N-acylethanolamines is an analogue of anandamide, an endogenous cannabinoid with anxiolytic and euphoric effects. Cacao also contains Phenylethylamine, a natural monoamine that increases the release of norepinephrine, the dopamine precursor tyrosine and acetylcholine implicated in mood regulation. Interestingly poor mental health can lead to eating of comfort foods such as chocolate but remember these positive benefits are only gained from dark chocolate with at least 50% Cacao content.
Seeds and nuts
Many seeds and nuts contain powerful antioxidants that protect the brain from free radical damage. They’re also an excellent source of magnesium, iron, zinc and copper.
Walnuts are high in Omega-3s and dietary fibre and their consumption is linked to benefits of the microbiome including promotion of anti-inflammatory markers produced by beneficial microbes and reduction of harmful bacteria.
Chia, Flax, Hemp and Pumpkin Seeds
Both Chia and flax seeds are high in omega-3 fatty acids and have been found to keep the arteries of the brain clear of plaque. They nourish the brain by helping communication between brain cells. Remember chia seeds must be ground or well chewed. If not they go through you like lead shot. Since Chia is almost 30% ALA, consuming more than say 25 grams a day can be dangerous. You should not have more than 5 to 6 grams of ALA a day or suffer from the lack of blood clotting. Never buy ground seed, it is probably rancid. If you grind your own make sure you clean your grinder completely. ALA goes rapidly rancid and rancid oils (peroxide’s and epoxies) are carcinogenic. The ultimate goodness value from these seeds can be obtained by sprouting them. Take all in moderation.
Protein isn’t just for your muscles, it’s critical for brain development and neurotransmitter function, which is important for optimal brain function and mental health.
Hemp seeds contain around 25% protein, made up of all the essential amino acids. Richer in zinc than many other seeds, pumpkin seeds supply this valuable mineral which is vital for enhancing memory and thinking skills. They’re also full of stress-busting magnesium, vitamin B and tryptophan, the precursor to the good mood chemical serotonin.
If you wanted to choose a leafy green that’s great for mental health and wellbeing, it would be Purslane
Purslane is milder and crunchier than watercress with a light lemon-pepper flavor. It can be used as a substitute for spinach or other greens and is nutrient dense, containing seven times more beta-carotene than carrots. It has the highest omega-3 fatty acids of any leafy vegetable and is in the same omega-3 range of flax seeds, algae and fish. Purslane is also high in magnesium, calcium, potassium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin B, vitamin C and age-defying bioflavonoids. Purslane contains two types of antioxidants that prevent cell mutation. Be wary, however, if you’re prone to kidney stones since purslane contains oxalate.
Since purslane is full of magnesium and melatonin, it’s a great antidote if you’ve consumed too much caffeine. Purslane will reduce caffeine’s side effects like the flutters and sleeplessness. High magnesium levels also help reduce migraines and headaches. Purslane grows exceptionally well in CEA and with LED lights can give exceptionally high harvests.
Bringing it all together for our mental health
Eating the right healthy foods is critical for our mental health, all interlinked with a healthy gut microbiome. When we are happy we eat foods that make us feel euphoric releasing serotonin. There is nothing better than sharing that happiness with family and friends. This is missing in our lives at present but we are resilient and must realize the pandemic is only short term.
Disclaimer: We are not advocating this information in preference to medical advice, remember if you have serious illness please seek advice from your general practitioner. Our blogs are designed for people looking for advice on plants that have additional phytonutrients that can help repair and replenish your body and boost the immune system. We advise you to stay within peer reviewed research and CDC guidance.
Unless otherwise stated all images are courtesy of The Functional Plant Company and property of Urban Ag News.
Janet Colston PhD is pharmacologist with an interest in growing ‘functional’ foods that have additional phytonutrients and display medicinal qualities that are beneficial to human health. She grows these using a range of techniques including plant tissue micropropagation and controlled environmental agriculture to ensure the highest quality control.