February 25, 2024

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Protein and mental health: Understanding the critical connection

Protein is the building block of life. Found in every cell of the body, it is responsible for various body functions like building muscle, providing energy, repair, and maintenance among other things. But it is not just for physical heath, did you know that this essential macronutrient is also vital for improved cognitive functions? Sharing this unique link between protein and mental health, Dr Uma Naidoo, director of nutritional and lifestyle psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital, wrote on Instagram, “Did you know that protein is linked to improved cognitive performance? Protein is critical for the synthesis of various critical neurotransmitters and neuromodulators”.

Adding, she wrote that from reducing cortisol levels to stabilising blood sugar levels, protein is a key component for optimising cognitive performance.

Mental health benefits of protein

Dr Naidoo shared mental health benefits of protein as:

1. Increases serotonin
2. Reduces cortisol levels
3. Balances blood sugar levels
4. Boosts memory
5. Improves mental clarity

Protein is linked to improved cognitive performance Protein is required for the production of neurotransmitters, which are responsible for communication between nerve cells in the brain. (Pic source: Pexels)

Speaking with indianexpress.com, Sameena Ansari – Senior Dietitian and Nutritionist, CARE Hospitals, Hi-Tec City, Hyderabad concurs with Dr Naidoo and said that protein is indeed important for mental health. “It is required for the production of neurotransmitters, which are responsible for communication between nerve cells in the brain. These neurotransmitters include serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which regulate mood, emotion, and cognitive function. A deficiency in protein intake can lead to a decrease in the production of these neurotransmitters, resulting in mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.”

She added that protein also promotes mental health by improving brain function. “It provides the necessary amino acids required for the synthesis of new brain cells and strengthens the connections between nerve cells. This process helps to enhance cognitive function, memory, and focus”.

Things to keep in mind

However, when incorporating protein into the diet, it is essential to keep in mind the quality and quantity of protein sources. “Complete protein sources, such as animal products, contain all the essential amino acids required for the proper functioning of the body. However, incomplete protein sources, such as plant-based proteins, may lack certain essential amino acids. As such, it is important to consume a variety of protein sources to ensure adequate intake of all essential amino acids,” said Ansari.

Sharing that when proteins are broken down or digested, amino acids are left behind, Dr Naidoo listed some of her favorite foods rich in selected amino acids:

Tryptophan: chickpeas; pasture raised chicken; grass-fed whole milk, canned wild tuna
Tyrosine: avocados, sesame seeds, almonds, edamame
Histidine: buckwheat, cauliflower, mushrooms, whole grains, nuts
Arginine: salmon, almonds, brown rice, oats, chickpeas

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