Psychiatrist and Nutritional Expert
Psychiatrist and Nutritional Expert
Dr. Uma Naidoo is a Harvard-trained nutritional psychiatrist, nutritional biologist, professional chef, and author of the upcoming title, “Calm Your Mind With Food,” which is now available for preorder, as well as the international bestseller, “This Is Your Brain on Food (An Indispensible Guide to the Surprising Foods that Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, and More).” She is currently the Founder and Director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), the first US clinic of its kind where she consults on nutritional interventions for the psychiatrically and medically ill.
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September 26, 2023
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As a nutritional psychiatrist, I closely follow the ground-breaking research on the relationship between coffee and psychological health.
I often tell people to eat the rainbow. And in many cases, this directive also includes coffee. Here are a few reasons I consider coffee a brain-boosting beverage, and an overview of how I prepare my morning cup for maximum health benefits.
It’s packed with phytonutrients
A colorful plate makes for a nutrient-dense meal. The phytonutrients in plant foods that give them color also confer immense antioxidant value—and the coffee bean is no exception.
As a dark-colored bean, coffee is rich in polyphenols (powerful antioxidants implicated in the neurological benefits observed with coffee intake1) including a class of compounds called chlorogenic acids. These compounds are known to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activities2 in the brain and body. They have a particularly beneficial effect on our blood vessels, especially those in the brain.
This may be one of the mechanisms underlying coffee’s protective effects on the brain through the aging process.
It may help prevent cognitive decline
Results of a 2021 study published in PLoS One, a major medical journal, suggests that not only is moderate coffee intake linked with reduced stroke and dementia risk5, but it may also lesson the risk of dementia even after experiencing a stroke.
It seems to have a positive impact on mood
From the standpoint of psychiatric health, coffee also proves to be a powerful food: intake of a few cups a day is linked with a significantly lowered risk of depression6 and suicide7. Though mechanisms are yet to be elucidated (and I’m not suggesting a cup of coffee will prevent suicide), for those who do enjoy coffee, it may serve as an important part of a plan for better mental well-being.
It helps with focus and attention
And when it comes to productivity, modest amounts of caffeine have been shown to help improve focus, stimulate the mind, and clear brain fog. Individuals with ADHD, in particular, may benefit from this form of a ‘brain boost’ as it helps them to focus on completing each task at hand.
In individuals with ADHD8, the brain reabsorbs neurotransmitters prematurely, which impacts attention and hyperactivity. Stimulant medications for ADHD work to increase the amount of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain by slowing down its reabsorption, thus promoting increased focus. Consuming stimulating substances like caffeine can also have similar effects on those struggling with ADHD.
It may help lower risk of metabolic disease
A few caveats
I always recommend that people tune into their innate body intelligence—it’s one of the pillars of nutritional psychiatry. And while coffee is largely good for the brain, it can negatively affect some people. So you need to be realistic about the right amount of caffeine for you to consume, or whether you should consume it at all.
For example, rather than a store-bought mocha full of sugar and unhealthy fats, one could mix antioxidant-rich cacao with coffee and unsweetened coconut milk for added healthy fats, a drop of vanilla for extra indulgent flavor, and a dash of cinnamon on top for extra cognition-boosting and glucose-balancing effects.
When preparing coffee, I use unsweetened plant-based or grass-fed whole milks rather than sugary, refined creamers. I also avoid added processed ingredients that inflame the gut and brain, disrupt the gut microbiome, and eventually negatively impact our mental health.
How I prepare my coffee
Starting the day with a brain-healthy ritual can help promote both brain fitness and a feeling of purpose. My own daily meditation includes a mood-boosting golden milk recipe that can be adapted into a turmeric-espresso latte with a single espresso shot.
- Heat all the ingredients except the nutmeg in a medium saucepan over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Pour into your favorite mug, sprinkle with nutmeg, and enjoy!
I developed this special recipe with my grandma (to whom my first book is dedicated), so sipping it in the morning has a special meaning for me for that reason. You may choose to enjoy your cup while catching up on the news, listening to an educational podcast, taking your pet for a walk to your local coffee shop, or simply spending uninterrupted time with a loved one before the day begins.
While some people do not respond well to coffee, many of us can enjoy the brew knowing that it’s supporting our mood, cognition, and overall brain health. However, I recommend avoiding processed ingredients and added sugars in your morning cup so you can start your day ready for success.