Clinical nutritionist Bek Sutton reports on research showing salmon can boost mental health
Anxiety! The experience ranges from that butterfly sensation in your tummy when you have a big moment ahead, which is generally accepted as healthy or normal anxiety, to the frightening and catastrophic world of anxiety disorders or panic attacks. Those who have experienced any of the escalated stages of anxiety would try anything to make it stop, right?
Luckily for us there are some foods that we can eat that have been shown to change our bodies’ pathology so, over time, the physical and psychological effects of anxiety are significantly reduced.
What is this superfood you ask? Is it some exotic berry from the deep forests of Peru? Does this involve juicing or the collecting of leaves at dawn? Luckily this is not the case. In fact, the food tested by researchers is our humble fishy friend, salmon. Even better, this salmon wasn’t caught in the remotest coldest depths of the ocean but instead was farm sourced fish, thereby making it easily obtainable by all.
The specific study that I am referring to is a cracker by (Graff, Frøyland & Thayer 2014). They selected a group of 95 men to receive three meals a week that contained salmon. These men had measurable, existing anxiety scores that were recorded both at the start of the study and at its conclusion 23 weeks later. The anxiety scores were both self reported, using an anxiety baseline questionnaire, and used physical measurements of anxiety involving heart rate variability. The results at the conclusion of the study were that the self reported anxiety levels were reduced and that the heart rate measurements were improved.
So how much salmon do I need to eat to get this kind of results? The amount consumed in the study was a portion size of between 150 and 300g per meal. Salmon for dinner three times a week? Sounds like an excellent plan to me!
In case if you were wondering, this study did have a control group. The men in the control group were fed similar portion sizes of chicken, beef or pork instead of the salmon. The purpose of this was to ensure that it wasn’t the feeding of a high quality protein source that caused the results of the intervention.
Salmon as a wholefood has measurable essential fatty acid content alongside high quality protein, vitamin D, selenium, iodine and B12.
As mentioned in this study there have been trials run using these individual nutrients to assess their impact on mental health status, with mixed results. These nutrients combined in a natural food source however equal great results!
What I love about this idea is that it is consuming a “whole food” that works towards optimal health. There is a prevalent reductionist attitude in our society where we are shuffling towards the ideal of taking one pill to fix all ails. Now don’t get me wrong, I think that pills have their place in health care, I just want people to be more empowered in their food choices, knowing that what they are putting in their mouths is working towards achieving their health goals in both the short and long term.
What I love about this idea is that it is consuming a “whole food” that works towards optimal health.
Salmon’s role in reducing anxiety
Let’s look at the different aspects of salmon and expand on how they assist the reduction of anxiety.
Essential fatty acids
Western diets typically contain a higher amount of omega 6 fatty acids then omega 3. Changing these figures around so that we are averaging a higher rate of omega 3s has been shown to reduce systemic inflammation through the inhibition of pro-inflammatory cytokine pathways (Kiecolt-Glaser et al. 2011). This reduction of inflammation means that the brain doesn’t have to deal with signaling disruption and immune activation that persistent inflammation causes (Miller et al. 2014).
High quality protein
Dietary protein is a non-negotiable component of our neuro-transmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and GABA. We want these guys to be abundant and doing their job well to prevent anxiety as well as all other mental health issues (Gibson et al. 2014).
Most of us can synthesise this nutrient from sunlight on our skin, but if you don’t do sunlight then you might be more at risk of a deficiency which increases your likelihood of depression and anxiety (Bičíková et al. 2015). Topping up with a dietary source combats this, regardless of your ability to tan.
This mineral is an important antioxidant and as such could contribute to mental health by keeping inflammation down (Hassan et al. 2014). Adequate selenium intake could also increase the quantity of neurotransmitters in the brain, leading to improved mood (Banikazemi et al. 2016).
This one is crucial in metabolism regulation, playing a large role in thyroid control. The link between iodine and anxiety is speculative at best, but it is reported that people with underactive thyroids are more likely to be anxious or depressed (Młyniec et al. 2015). Getting enough dietary iodine makes sure that your thyroid operates well, reducing your risk of mental health problems.
B12 and his friend folate are important for improving mental health in two different ways. One is that together they break down homocysteine (a big player in the inflammation world) and two is that by using the exact same action in which they break down homocysteine, they produce serotonin, other neurotransmitters and hormones (Örnek, Tufan & Kara 2014). Now I know that folate is not a component of salmon, but if you serve your salmon with leafy greens then you get your folate component sorted as well as a delicious meal!
If you serve your salmon with leafy greens then you get your folate component sorted as well as a delicious meal!
Now that I’ve picked the active components of salmon apart, let’s put it back into context. Instead of taking all of the above items as individual supplements, just make a little change to your food routine and add 150g of grilled or poached salmon to your menuthree times a week!
Investing in your health, happiness and wellbeing can be as simple as creating a new tasty food habit. Remember, developing a state of impaired health takes time.The changes you make will repair and improve your health, but they too take time. Be gentle with yourself, consistent in your efforts and know that you are working towards something well worth achieving.
Banikazemi, Z, Mirzaei, H, Mokhber, N & Mobarhan, MG 2016, ‘Selenium Intake is Related to Beck ’ s Depression Score’, Iran Red crescent Med Journal, vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 10–11.
Bičíková, M, Dušková, M, Vítků, J, Kalvachová, B, Řípová, D, Mohr, P & Stárka, L 2015, ‘Vitamin D in Anxiety and Affective Disorders’, Physiology, vol. 64, pp. 101–103.
Gibson, EL, Vargas, K, Hogan, E & Holmes, A 2014, ‘Effects of acute treatment with a tryptophan-rich protein hydrolysate on plasma amino acids , mood and emotional functioning in older women’, psycopharmacology, pp. 4595–4610.
Graff, IE, Frøyland, L & Thayer, JF 2014, ‘Intervention with Atlantic Salmon’, Nutrients, pp. 5405–5418.
Hassan, W, Eduardo, C, Silva, B, Ullah, I & Batista, J 2014, ‘Association of Oxidative Stress to the Genesis of Anxiety : Implications for Possible Therapeutic Interventions’, Current neuropharmacology, pp. 120–139.
Kiecolt-Glaser, JK, Belury, MA, Andridge, R, Malarkey, WB & Glaser, R 2011, ‘Omega-3 supplimentation lowers inflammation and anxiety in medical students: Arandomised controlled trial’, NIH Public Access, vol. 25, no. 8, pp. 1725–1734.
Miller, A, Haroon, E, Raison, CL & Felger, JC 2014, ‘Cytokine targets in the brain : impact on Neurotansmitters and neurocircuits’, NIH Public Access, vol. 30, no. 4, pp. 297–306.
Młyniec, K, Gaweł, M, Doboszewska, U, Starowicz, G, Pytka, K, Linzi, C & Budziszewska, B 2015, ‘Pharmacological Reports Essential elements in depression and anxiety . Part II’, Pharmacological Reports, vol. 67, Institute of Pharmacology, Polish Academy of Sciences, no. 2, pp. 187–194.
Örnek, I, Tufan, AE & Kara, A 2014, ‘Vitamin B12 , folate , and homocysteine levels in patients with obsessive – compulsive disorder’, Neuropsychiatric disease and treatment, pp. 1671–1675.
Super Simple Grilled Salmon
Salmon fillets (however many you require)
Salt and pepper (a sprinkle of both)
Lemon wedges (one for each fillet)
Two teaspoons of flaked almonds per fillet
Take your salmon fillet and sprinkle with desired volume of seasoning
Place under a high grill for 4 minutes each side
Pop fillet onto plate
Squeeze lemon over, sprinkle with flaked almonds
Serve your salmon with abundant lightly steamed greens, drizzled with olive oil for a simple and super-fast nutritious meal.