Happy Meals – Literally: Foods Like Fish, Walnuts May Improve Mood

By Sue Scheible for The Patriot Ledger

The next time someone says, “Eat something, you’ll feel better,” chow down.

Especially if fish, walnuts, molasses or sugar beets are on the menu. New research at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital indicates some food ingredients may be as effective as traditional antidepressants in bolstering mood.

Although the connection has so far only been explored in rats, the results are encouraging and shouldn’t be too surprising, according to Dr. Bruce Cohen, president and psychiatrist in chief at McLean, a private psychiatric hospital with a large research program.

Scientists already knew that certain elements of the diet can affect
the brain. Cultures that follow diets rich in fish with high amounts of
omega-3 fatty acids, such as sardines, anchovies, salmon and mackerel, tend
to show less major depression, Cohen said.

In the newest study, which will be published next week in Biological
Psychiatry, rats were tested under stressful conditions that would normally
cause them to act helpless, a form of despair or severe depression. Rats
given injections of uridine, a substance found in walnuts and molasses, or
fed a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids showed fewer signs of despair.
The most effective treatment combined uridine and omega-3 acids.

Scientists still don’t understand exactly why the combination worked.
McLean researchers also reported recently that there are dramatic
genetic changes in the brains of people who have bipolar disorder, a
condition that involves cycles of depression.

Omega-3 fish oils have been best known for their proven cardiovascular
benefits. The new findings broaden the suspected mental health effects. Some nutritionists have cited a significant drop in the omega-3 fatty acids in
food supplies of Western nations, while rates of depression have
dramatically increased.

Omega-3 oils have also been credited with sharpening memory and
concentration.

Joan Endyke of Hingham, a registered dietician, said food and behavior
is among the most quickly advancing fields in nutrition research.
Endyke said that compared to 100 years ago, today’s diets are missing
some of the key elements – omega-3 oils, B vitamins and minerals and
proteins – thought to affect the neurons in the brain.

“That can have an effect on a variety of brain disorders,” she said.
“ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), dyslexia, autism and
depression are all brain abnormalities that deal with faulty
neurotransmitters,” she said. “The nerve cells don’t connect properly.”
Other foods have been linked to mental health over the past decade. Binges – especially at holiday season – have been explained by the theory that the
carbohydrates stimulate the production of a brain chemical called serotonin,
found to be lower in depressed people. The newest generation of
antidepressant medications, called SSRIs, work to maintain serotonin at
higher levels.

Binges may be an attempt by people to self-medicate for depression,
according to some mental health professionals. In several studies, high
carbohydrate levels raised serotonin levels while meals that were rich in
protein or fat did not raise it or tended to lower it. Certain substances
found in chocolate also may raise serotonin levels.

For more information on food and behavior research, visit the web site
http://www.fabresearch.org

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