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Mental health – Diet matters!



Covid-19 has had a negative impact on mental health, according to recent research studies. As the pandemic continues to upend our lives, eating for mental health is of prime importance. Nutritional psychiatry is a new field on the block that studies connections between foods and mental health. The saying, you are what you eat, holds more weight since extensive research studies strongly suggest that foods can affect moods. Food is at the center of who we are.

The gut and brain axis is the connection between brain and second brain (gut). The vagus nerve connects the brain and the GI system. It is responsible for mood, digestion, immune response in addition to numerous other bodily functions. Mental stress can inhibit the vagus nerve, thereby affecting the gut bacteria and disrupting GI conditions.

The gut microbiome (bacteria) can be one of the indicators of mental health. They produce short chain fatty acids and neurotransmitters that stimulate the nervous system. Specific bacteria can be responsible for strengthening memory and regulating stress.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter (carries signals between nerve cells) responsible for reducing depression, healing wounds, controlling anxiety, determining hunger level and maintaining bone health. Aptly known as a mood stabilizer, it makes you feel happy, calm and less anxious. Serotonin needs an essential amino acid called tryptophan for its production.

Over 90 percent of serotonin is made in the gut. Certain gut bacteria play a vital role in production of serotonin. Bottom line, gut bacteria are important in maintaining mental health.

Diet recommendations

Systematic reviews of several clinical trials with the Nutritional Network of the European college of Neuropsychopharmacology confirmed that Mediterranean diet high in Omega 3 fatty acids and rich in polyphenols can improve the gut-brain axis, thereby providing protection against depression and anxiety.

Fermented foods (prebiotic and probiotic foods) – Improve the growth and diversity of the gut microbiota and reduce anxiety and stress response. Kefir, yogurt, buttermilk, kombucha (fermented tea), miso, kimchi, sauerkraut, tempeh, idli, dosa, dhokla, handover, cheeses like cheddar, mozzarella and gouda. Prebiotics are food for probiotic foods; they are the type of fiber that the human body cannot digest. 

High-fiber foods – Contain prebiotics. Fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains. They reduce anxiety, improve mental health and lower inflammation.

High Omega 3-low Omega 6 diet – In a single center study, patients with bipolar disease who received a diet high in Omega 3 fatty acids and low in omega 6 fatty acids (H3-L6) showed significant reductions in mood swings, irritability and pain compared with the control that received diet with regular levels of Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids. Omega 3 fatty acids are part of the membranes of the neuron and create signaling molecules that interact with immune and inflammatory systems. Increasing Omega 3’s consumption and reducing Omega 6’s might be effective. Sources include fish (salmon, cod fish tuna). Spinach, Mangoes, lettuce and kidney beans. Adequate intake of Omega 3 per day is 1600 mg. 

Vitamin D – decreases inflammation and protects neurons (nerve cells) in the brain. Good sources include fatty fish, fortified milk, milk products, cereals and mushrooms.

Vitamin B12 – Its deficiency has been associated with memory loss, increased fatigue and risk of depression. This vitamin may prevent brain atrophy (loss of neurons). Sources of B12: meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, nutritional yeast and mushrooms.

Foods that have negative effects on mental health include highly processed foods, fried foods, trans fats, foods high in salt and refined sugar, and saturated fat. They contribute to anxiety, stress, depression and inflammation. Highly processed foods lead to growth of bad bacteria in the body, ultimately leading to inflammation, triggering a host of mental and physical problems.

Recipe of the month: Asparagus, spinach stuffed zucchini rollatini!

Preheat oven at 400F

Wash, dry and slice zucchini 1/8 inch thick strips in a mandolin slicer or with a knife. Season the slices with little salt. Heat the skillet with ½ tbsp oil and cook the slices for 2 minutes on each side taking care not to overlap the slices on the skillet alternatively roast in the oven for about 5-6 minutes.

In a pan, heat ½ tbsp olive oil, add chopped onion and cook for about 4-5 minutes, then rest of the chopped vegetables (except for avocado), basil, salt, nutmeg, red crushed pepper, fennel seeds and Italian seasoning. Cook for another 4-5 minutes.

Let the mixture cool, add chopped avocados half of shredded mozzarella cheese.

Take the zucchini slices and apply the mixture in the center and fold the sides to make a roll. Repeat this step for the rest of the slices. Layer the 8/9 inch baking dish with 1 cup marinara sauce and place rollatini with pinwheel side down. Top it with ¼ cup sauce and shredded cheese. Cover the dish and bake for about 15 minutes. Garnish with fresh basil and enjoy!

To Our Health!

Bhavi Nirav is a certified Iyengar yoga teacher, Registered Dietitian/M.S., R.D., L.D., and can be reached at [email protected]

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