Food for Thought: Physician shares science behind mental health, happiness tools at La Jolla event

“Happiness is a perception. It’s reflective of our perspective on life. We can look at life with different lenses and different prisms. We try to live in a world of Zen, but it doesn’t always happen that way,” said Aboo Nasar, M.D., a board-certified geriatrician and internal medicine physician, during his “Pursuit of Happiness” lecture. The talk was given as part of the La Jolla Community Center Distinguished Speaker Series, Feb. 16.

To assist the brain in creating that uplifted perception, Nasar said there are things we can do — eat a healthful diet, get enough sleep, have good social connections and maintain a sense of spirituality. And while these concepts are not exactly breaking news, Nasar explained the science behind these lifestyle habits and their impact on the brain and overall happiness.

After speaking at length about why pharmaceuticals are only one option — and perhaps a detrimental one when taken in excess — he talked about how feeding the body well and integrative psychiatry are alternatives being considered more regularly.

“Integrative psychiatry looks at the whole person: body, mind and spirit,” he said. “If I have to treat a patient, I have to work with multiple entities … so when we want to assess mental health matters, we have to look at a whole slate of things.”

But, he added, “The most important thing is how you feed your body. If you look at a Ferrari, it can look nice, but to run, it has to have a sufficient engine and energy-dispensing system. Food is one of the crucial things that affects mood.”

Mood food

Nasar cited a recent study in Australia, which suggests a diet of whole grains, fruits, nuts, legumes, vegetables, lean meats, chicken and seafood — and a decrease of foods in the “beige diet” (white, carbohydrate-based items that are low in nutrients) — yielded positive mood changes that were comparable to those generated by certain pharmaceutical drugs.

Conversely, he said high fructose corn syrup and other processed sweeteners can cause brain inflammation “and can contribute to depression and other mental illness.”

Offering a few examples of foods that can contribute to a good mood, he said grapes have polyphenols “that are like a freeway cleanup crew for your blood vessels and take plaque and move it (which can boost energy) from around your heart,” he said.

Wild-caught salmon, Nasar added, is high in Vitamin B12, “essential for your neural-integrity and the nerves in your brain.”

Lastly, strawberries have Vitamin C and manganese, which are “crucial for making serotonin (a neurotransmitter that contributes to the feeling of well-being) and an amino acid known as GABA, which contributes to neuro-relaxation.”

Other foods he recommends include raw almonds, avocados, shitake mushrooms and sesame seeds.

Diets high in these foods, along with “beans, greens, citrus, berries, healthy fats such as coconut and fish oils,” contribute to the production of endorphins, he said. Other ways we can encourage the brain to make these elevating neurotransmitters include exercise, laughing, soothing scents such as lavender and spending time in the sun.

“Endorphins are the ‘happy’ neurotransmitters used by your spinal cord and our brain,” he said. “For chronic pain and emotional pain … they work very well. You want your body to make endorphins, and diet and time outside can help with that.”

Time to think

He also advocated for meditation as a way to stimulate the brain — both for its ability to relax the brain in the short term and stimulate activity in the long term.

“We are a spirit enveloped by a body, not a body with a spirit inside it. How we feed our spirit is a huge component to happiness,” he said. “Spirituality and meditation increases activity in your prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for retention, and works on your emotional brain, as well. For the effective working of your brain, it needs relaxation, too. So if you are having mental health issues, you could go see a psychiatrist, or you could see a monk and I think you would get better results.”

After the well-attended talk, several commented that, pending a few too many scientific terms, they appreciated the lecture.

“(Nasar) had a lot of great content … He encouraged me to continue on the path I’m on, which includes low sugar, a healthy diet and lots of laughter ... And while my husband and I go to the beach, I now think we need to spend even more time in nature,” said Nancy Lo.

Added Mary Jane Oates, “I used to design medical curriculum and teach yoga, so the title of this lecture attracted me here. There weren’t a lot of surprises, it was just encouraging to hear him reinforcing the ideas you hear from a lot of other health experts.”

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