The Farmacy

Change your food, change your mood.

Mussel Up Your Brain!

Sharper memory, better moods, bigger brain? Bring on the bivalves!

Along with all the other bivalves, mussels are a perfect brain food because they are packed with DHA and vitamin B-12, two key nutrients that are vital to protecting your brain health and preserving your memory as you age, along with a some rare trace minerals on which a healthy, happy brain depends.  But often when I recommend eating mussels, I hear concerns about “bottom feeders,” so let’s set the record straight.

Every three-ounce serving of mussels contains 430 mg of DHA, which is equivalent to 3-5 typical drug-store fish oil pills. DHA is the only omega-3 that is transported into the brain, where it serves as a building block of the neurons responsible for all your thoughts and feelings. People with high levels of DHA in their blood have been found to have slower rates of brain shrinkage as they age, while Alzheimer’s sufferers often have low levels of DHA in their blood.

Mussels have exceptionally high concentrations of vitamin B-12, just three ounces contains 20 micrograms – 340 percent of your recommended daily intake! This vitamin is so important to the brain that even the mildest deficiency can produce symptoms such as poor concentration, memory lapses, fuzzy thinking and low mood. B-12 is also found in many meat and dairy sources, which is why vegetarians who allow themselves some seafood should consider having an occasional plate of mussels to help protect themselves from low B-12 levels.

Like all bivalves, mussels might be considered one of “Mother Nature's multi-vitamins.” They are a great source of a wide variety of other brain-beneficial trace nutrients like selenium, vitamin B-2, manganese, heme-iron, zinc and iodine.

Selenium, in particular, is one of the few nutrients that have been associated in clinical studies with mood improvement. Selenium is also needed for healthy thyroid function, which regulates metabolism and also affects your moods. Not surprisingly, mussels are also a top source iodine, the other mineral of which your thyroid depends. Manganese is important because it forms the center of a powerful antioxidant called superoxide dismutase, which is produced in your brain to soak up free radicals and help preserve delicate fats, including DHA.

Mussels are endorsed as an environmentally sound food source by the Environmental Defense Fund because mussels are filter feeders that help clean the waters around them. Most mussels are farm-raised on ropes hung in the ocean where they do little or no damage. I tend to shy away from popular farmed fish, like tilapia and farmed (not wild) salmon, because farmed fish contain much lower concentrations of omega-3s and higher levels of toxins, like PCBs. Neither is the case with farmed mussels.

The final benefit of mussels is that they are so easy to prepare. They are sold alive, so they are always eaten fresh. Rinse and scrub them, toss them in a pot with a few cups of water, some herbs, garlic, and a little white wine, cover, steam, or check out my recipe. Toss out any that don’t open. Serve them with melted butter and garlic and you’ll do your taste buds and your brain a favor.

Drew Ramsey, M.D., is an assistant clinical professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University and author of The Happiness Diet.

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