Sunday Scaries

Pumpkin seeds may boost brain health in 4 crucial ways

Here's the scientific reason why you should think twice before you throw out your pumpkin seeds.

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Image of Halloween jack lantern. Shooting Location: Yokohama-city kanagawa prefecture
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In the United States, the pumpkin market is limited and seasonal. When fall arrives, so do pumpkins. Basketball-sized pumpkins get carved into Jack-o’-lanterns, and tiny, decorative gourds transform yards and homes from summer oases to autumnal arbors. Dense, sweet pumpkins fill pies — though the canned variety also works just as well.

But in other parts of the world, pumpkins aren’t so ephemeral. They’re fried and served with shrimp, simmered with soy sauce and sake, and tossed into stews. Pumpkins make for a nutritious meal. The peel, flesh, and seeds of pumpkins are rich in beneficial elements.

If you’re looking to add pumpkin to your diet, one step you can take is to save the seeds from the pumpkins you buy this fall and turn them into a snack. Pumpkin seeds are packed with vitamins and minerals. And while there is no “superfood” that can treat whatever ails you, some research suggests eating pumpkin seeds could benefit your mental health.

“We should definitely eat pumpkin seeds year-round,” says Amy Rains.

Rains is a nutrition lecturer at the research university William & Mary. She recommends covering them with olive or avocado oil, sea salt, garlic powder, and black pepper and roasting them in the oven for 15 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Pumpkin seeds are absolutely a great food to add to the diet in terms of mental health,” she says.

Consider the pumpkin

Worldwide, pumpkins are appreciated for their health benefits. But in the United States, most pumpkins end up in landfills.

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Scientists believe this fruit first originated in North America around 9,000 years ago. The oldest domesticated pumpkin seeds have been found in the Oaxaca Highlands of Mexico, and pumpkins are a historically significant food among Indigenous Americans. When colonists arrived in America, pumpkins became a staple of their diet, too, and were taken back to Europe. Now, pumpkins are used for food and medicinal purposes worldwide.

Despite their delicious taste, most of the pumpkins in the United States end up in the trash. For example, in 2014 the U.S. produced around 2 billion pounds of pumpkin, and an estimated 1.3 billion pounds went to waste rather than being eaten or composted. And though the pumpkins that typically end up carved at Halloween are not considered the most delicious type, their leaves are edible and so are their seeds. (The flesh inside smaller pumpkins is typically tastier.)

Pumpkin seeds are thought to benefit mental health because they contain various brain-friendly nutrients, explains Rains. These include:

  • Omega 3s
  • Magnesium
  • Tryptophan
  • Fiber
  • Vitamin E
  • Zinc
  • Selenium

There’s a growing appreciation for the relationship between food and mental health. While the nature of this link is complicated by compounding factors like one’s environment, a steady uptick in research shows that both the brain and the gut are influenced by what we eat. The brain and gut, in turn, together play a significant role in our mental health.

Four reasons why pumpkin seeds can benefit mental health

Pumpkin seeds are an easy mental health-friendly food to your diet.

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4. They contain magnesium.

“Magnesium is a brain-friendly mineral that is typically low in individuals suffering from anxiety and depression,” explains Rains.

A serving of pumpkin seeds provides approximately 40 to 50 percent of our recommended dietary allowance for magnesium. Beyond benefiting the brain, magnesium is also helpful for heart and bone health, blood pressure, and the prevention of migraines.

3. Pumpkin seeds contain tryptophan.

You might associate tryptophan more readily with feeling sleepy after eating turkey — although that is a myth — but this amino acid really plays a role in the production of serotonin.

In most cases, less than 10 percent of the tryptophan we consume is converted into serotonin — which isn’t enough to trigger the relaxed and happy effect linked to the chemical. But “pumpkin seeds rank in the top 5 foods that have a higher conversion to serotonin,” Rains says. This is why some scientists theorize pumpkin seeds possess antidepressant potential — though their role would be as an additive to another therapy, not a cure.

2. They contain fiber.

Pumpkin seeds have about 5 grams of fiber per serving, which makes them a gut-friendly food. Fiber benefits the gut in several ways: Beyond normalizing your bowel movements, consuming fiber leads to increased gut microbiota diversity — which results in a healthier gut. In a 2021 study published in the journal Nutrition Journal, scientists found that just a two-week increase in fiber resulted in a healthier gut.

“Any time we can make our gut microbiota happy, our brains respond in a positive way,” Rains says.

1. They contain Omega 3s.

Pumpkin seeds are a rich source of Omega 3s, particularly the plant-based form, Alpha Linoleic Acid (ALAs). Research suggests a link between having too little Omega 3s and increased odds of developing various mental health conditions, such as depression, bipolar disorder, and ADHD. Their anti-inflammatory effect, in turn, may boost mental health, too — Omega 3s promote brain health by lowering inflammatory markers and maintaining the integrity of our cell membranes.

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