Feel Good

Coffee, saffron and other surprising superfoods that can boost your mental health

We step inside the internationally renowned Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre at Northumbria University and meet the team working to prevent memory loss, improve mental arithmetic and boost mood.

Written by Becky Hardy
Published 11.03.2023

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If it’s true that ‘we are what we eat’, then what’s on our plates can say a lot about what’s in our heads.

From calculating our share of the bill out at dinner with the girls to boosting our mood when we’re feeling low (and we’re not just looking at you, chocolate), the food we consume in our diets is actually more responsible for our mental health than we may realise.

This is what we found out when we were introduced to the team at the Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre at Northumbria University.

Dedicated to nutritional neuroscience, the Centre meticulously unravels the mystery of how plant extracts and other food compounds interact with our physiology to uncover just how the foods we eat can improve our brain function and mental wellbeing.

And you – yes, you – could help them with their next breakthrough.

WHAT IS NUTRITIONAL NEUROSCIENCE?

In a nutshell, nutritional neuroscience looks at how food affects our brains.

‘Nutritional neuroscience refers to the scientific study of the effects that whole foods and individual components of diet – such as vitamins, minerals, macronutrients and plant chemicals – have on brain function and behaviour,’ explains Dr Philippa Jackson, Associate Director and Associate Professor at the Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre.

While it’s not quite a case of simply taking vitamins for mental health disorders, scientists at the Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre are gradually discovering how the nutrients and plant compounds found in our food can potentially protect us from certain brain diseases, improve the capabilities of our brains and boost our mood.

HOW CAN NUTRITIONAL NEUROSCIENCE HELP US?

A study published last year by a different research group revealed that adopting a diet high in whole grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, vegetables and fish and low in red and processed meat and sugary beverages could lead to an increased lifespan.

To gain the greatest benefit, you’d change to an optimal diet in your 20s. But science shows that even making changes to your diet later in life – and we’re talking as late as 80 – might still extend your lifespan by almost three-and-a-half years.

‘When we consider “optimal ageing”, our thoughts immediately turn to a long life free from chronic illness, especially non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes,’ says Philippa.

‘This study suggests that plant-based, nutrient-dense foods are fundamental to ageing successfully. But ensuring optimal mental health and brain function across our lifespans is equally important, and here nutrition also has an important role to play.’

Philippa’s assessment is, of course, backed up by science. A recent review found that diets containing the exact same food groups identified in the study were associated with a lower risk of developing age-related cognitive impairment and dementia, although more research is still required.

Not that you always have to wait until you’re older before feeling the benefits of a healthier diet on your mental health, mind you.

‘Data from our lab – collected over the last two decades – has revealed that there are benefits to consuming a wide variety of nutrients, herbal extracts and plant compounds found in everyday products, specifically on our brain function and mood,’ Philippa explains.

‘These results can be observable from as little as a few minutes after consumption to a few weeks, depending on the item.’

BREAKTHROUGHS AT THE BRAIN, PERFORMANCE AND NUTRITION RESEARCH CENTRE

‘Since the start of Northumbria University’s nutritional neuroscience programme over two decades ago, our Centre has always been at the forefront of research that provides evidence of the relationship between nutrition and behaviour,’ says Dr Fiona Dodd, Research Fellow at the Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre.

‘Back then, the food supplement industry was relatively unregulated, and claims made on product packaging were not backed up by scientific evidence. The pioneering work of Professor David Kennedy, Director of the Centre, has helped change that forever.

‘In many cases, our studies provided the very first empirical evidence of how certain herbal and other food extracts can benefit cognitive function and mood.’

So, what has the Centre discovered?

Sage – improves memory

‘Interestingly, the properties of some plants described in medical texts that date back millennia are fascinatingly accurate,’ Fiona tells us.

‘The ancient Greeks thought that garden sage was “good for helping diminution of senses and loss of memory”. Our lab has confirmed this to be the case; across several separate trials, sage extracts have been shown to improve performance on tasks assessing memory.’

One of the Centre’s most recently published studies investigated how taking common sage and Spanish sage for 29 days impacted the memories of 30 – 60-year-olds. The results found that working memory, short-term memory and overall cognitive accuracy all improved significantly.

Saffron – helps with depressive symptoms  

The world’s most valuable spice is typically used in cooking, with Asian medicine already noting its use for treating physical ailments like inflammation.

But more recent work conducted by the Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre has looked into the potential anti-depressant effects of saffron.

‘Given how common depression is and the reservations surrounding the side effects of certain pharmacological treatments for it, an important area of research for us is how alternative treatments can improve mood disorders,’ Fiona explains.

The Centre conducted a trial with healthy adults who had reported feelings of low mood and anxiety and/or stress, but who didn’t have any formal diagnosis of a mood disorder.

Participants took 30g of saffron extract every day for eight weeks and completed regular mood assessments, as well as multiple cognitive tasks. The Centre’s findings showed that when compared with a placebo, saffron extract noticeably improved depressive symptoms.

Mango leaf extract – improves brain function

‘Polyphenols are naturally occurring compounds, highly abundant in the human diet through the consumption of fruits, vegetables, tea, coffee, wine, herbs and spices,’ says Dr Ellen Smith, Senior Research Assistant at the Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre.

‘Considerable research has been conducted into the potential health-promoting effects of polyphenols. One example is mango.’

Studies have already found mango to have neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory effects, among other health benefits. But the Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre wanted to discover how mango leaf extract could help healthy, young adults.

Findings from our trial showed clear improvement on a battery of cognitive tasks, specifically accuracy on tasks targeting attention and improved episodic memory, or the memory of everyday events,’ says Ellen.

‘We also saw improvements in specific individual tasks, including mental arithmetic. However, no effects on mood were observed.’

Coffeeberry – makes us more alert

We love the feeling of being able to take on the world that comes with our first sip of coffee.

And we’d always assumed that was the caffeine getting to work. But studies by the Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre have found that the coffee fruit itself is also responsible for this alerting effect.

‘The flesh of the coffee fruit (coffeeberry) and green, unroasted beans are rich in polyphenols,’ says Ellen. ‘These have the potential to either directly improve brain function or work alongside caffeine to produce the same effect.

‘But we needed to know for sure. So, to help us disentangle our findings, we used a coffeeberry extract containing very little caffeine in two trials. We observed a consistent alerting effect evident across the whole six-hour testing period.

These findings support those of our previous trials, which observed alerting effects of decaffeinated coffee in younger and older adults. Taken together, our research supports the fact that there is an alerting effect of the non-caffeine components of the coffee plant.’

CURRENT TRIALS AND HOW YOU CAN GET INVOLVED

‘We’re currently recruiting participants for two different trials, with several other studies starting shortly,’ Joanne Forster, Senior Research Assistant at the Centre, tells us.

Lemon verbena

Children and teens aged 8-17 years

‘Our first trial is in children and adolescents aged 8-17 years and is investigating the potential benefits of lemon verbena on children’s behaviour, mood and cognitive performance.

‘Previous research suggests that this aromatic shrub, and similar herbal ingredients, may be useful in aiding concentration and improving sleep – which may be particularly useful as we approach exam season for a lot of teenagers.

‘This trial will require children (and their parent/guardian) to attend the Research Centre on four separate occasions to complete basic tasks, plus an initial 30-minute online/telephone screening appointment. All appointments will last roughly two hours and take place outside of school hours.

‘Children will consume the lemon verbena supplement at home for eight weeks in total and will receive £120 in vouchers for taking part. Parents will also receive £30 towards travel expenses.’

Stress and Wellbeing

Adults aged 18-75 years

‘Our second trial is recruiting adults aged 18-75 years, who report themselves as feeling stressed,’ Joanne explains.

‘This study will investigate the effects of a supplement containing Baikal Skullcap and Hawthorn. Previous research has suggested that these plant extracts may have beneficial effects on sleep, anxiety-like behaviour and additional health outcomes.

‘Our trial is working to understand the effects of these plant extracts in combination on responses to stress, cognitive performance, sleep and wellbeing.

‘Participants will be required to attend the Research Centre on five separate occasions to complete basic tasks, plus an initial 30-minute online/telephone screening appointment. Each appointment will last around four hours. They will consume the treatment at home for two separate ‘treatment periods’: an initial two weeks, followed by a two-week ‘washout’ period, and then a final two weeks of treatment consumption.

‘All participants will receive £200 for completion of the study, intended to cover time commitment and travel expenses.

Both of these studies have received ethical approval from the Northumbria University Psychology Staff Ethics Committee, (reference numbers 49191 and 1942, respectively).

If you’re interested in participating, you can contact the study teams directly by emailing:

[email protected] for Lemon Verbena

or

[email protected] for Stress and Wellbeing

The Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre at Northumbria University are always recruiting participants for their ongoing trials. To be the first to hear about new projects, sign up to their participant database 

You can find out more information about the Brain, Performance and Nutrition Research Centre on their website and follow the Centre on Facebook and Instagram

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