Perhaps chamomile tea calms you, or you’ve noticed that after you eat oysters, you feel happier. Once you start paying attention, it’s not difficult to sense the connection between your stomach and your emotions. In fact, according to Boulder-based Stephanie Small, a licensed clinical social worker and nutritionist with a certificate in mental health nutrition and nutrition education, you may notice the changes almost immediately. “If you intentionally eat a certain way, you could alter your biochemistry and feel significantly different in one day,” Small says. One reason? Something called the brain-gut connection: the bidirectional highway running between our central nervous system and our gastrointestinal tract that helps the two organs communicate with each other. Researchers are still exploring the possibilities (and limitations) of this nascent field of study, but they’ve identified a few foods, herbs, and spices that could help improve your mood, memory, and more—and definitely won’t hurt your cerebral processing power.
1. Coldwater Fish May Cheer You Up
Scientists have long known that depression is less common in countries where people consume large quantities of fish, and it is now believed that omega-3s are the root cause. These fatty acids are essential building blocks for our brains, and a growing body of evidence suggests increased consumption can help fight off mental disorders like depression. (Note: Eating a tuna sandwich for lunch doesn’t mean you can ditch your antidepressants. Consult your doctor before altering any medications.) Coldwater fish like salmon and sardines are high in omega-3s, but so are vegan-friendly options like flaxseed, walnuts, and seaweed.
2. Turmeric Can Improve Your Memory
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than five million Americans of all ages live with the devastating brain disease. While nothing indicates curcumin can cure Alzheimer’s, a 2018 study by the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry did find that 90 milligrams of the anti-inflammatory molecule twice daily can lead to improved memory and concentration. Turmeric, a spice used for thousands of years in India and southeast Asia, boasts a high concentration—so, if you remember, toss a teaspoon or two into your smoothie.
3. Pumpkin Seeds Could Make You Smarter
Both pumpkins and pumpkin seeds (pepitas) contain fiber, a nutrient commonly associated with digestion and gut health. And thanks to the gut-brain axis, we know that a high-fiber diet will increase butyrate in the colon. In turn, this molecule improves our brain’s ability to grow new cells, particularly in the hippocampus, which is the section responsible for learning. As a bonus, pumpkin seeds also contain large amounts of zinc and magnesium (which support memory and learning) and copper (an energy booster for the brain).