IN USA, the pumpkin market is limited and seasonal. When autumn comes, so do the pumpkins. Basketball-sized pumpkins are carved into lanterns, and small ornamental gourds transform yards and homes from summer oases to fall gazebos. Dense, sweet pumpkins fill pies—though the canned variety works just as well.
But in other parts of the world, pumpkins are not so ephemeral. They are fried and served with shrimp, stewed in soy sauce and sake, and tossed into stews. Pumpkins are a nutritious food. The peel, flesh and seeds of the pumpkin are rich in useful elements.
If you want 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 full of vitamins and minerals. And while there’s no “superfood” that can cure everything that ails you, some research suggests that eating pumpkin seeds may benefit your mental health.
“We should definitely be eating pumpkin seeds year-round,” says Amy Raines.
Raines is a lecturer in nutrition at William and Mary Research University. She recommends coating them with olive or avocado oil, sea salt, garlic powder, and pepper and baking them in the oven for 15 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
“Pumpkin seeds are an absolutely great food to add to the diet in terms of mental health,” she says.
Think about pumpkin
Scientists believe that this fruit originated in North America about 9,000 years ago. The oldest domesticated pumpkin seeds were found in the mountains of Oaxaca in Mexico, and pumpkins were a historically significant food among the indigenous peoples of the Americas. When the colonists arrived in the Americas, pumpkins also became a staple of their diet and were brought back to Europe. Pumpkins are now used for food and medicinal purposes all over the world.
Despite their great taste, most of the pumpkins in the United States end up in the trash. For example, in 2014, the US produced about 2 billion pounds of pumpkin, and about 1.3 billion pounds went to waste instead of being eaten or composted. And although the pumpkins usually carved on Halloween aren’t considered the tastiest kind, their leaves are edible, as are their seeds. (The flesh in smaller pumpkins is usually tastier.)
Pumpkin seeds are thought to be good for mental health because they contain a variety of brain-healthy nutrients, Rains explains. They include:
- Omega 3s
- Vitamin E
There is a growing appreciation of the connection between food and mental health. Although the nature of this relationship is complicated by complicating factors such as our environment, a steady growth in research shows that both the brain and the gut are affected by what we eat. The brain and gut, in turn, together play an important role in our mental health.
Four reasons why pumpkin seeds may be beneficial for mental health
4. They contain magnesium.
“Magnesium is a brain-friendly mineral that is typically low in people suffering from anxiety and depression,” explains Raines.
One serving of pumpkin seeds provides approximately 40 to 50 percent of our recommended dietary allowance for magnesium. As well as being good for the brain, magnesium is also good for heart and bone health, blood pressure and migraine prevention.
3. Pumpkin seeds contain tryptophan.
You might more easily associate tryptophan with feeling sleepy after eating turkey—though that’s a myth—but this amino acid does play a role in serotonin production.
In most cases, less than 10 percent of the tryptophan we consume is converted to serotonin—not enough to produce the relaxing and happy effects associated with the chemical. But “pumpkin seeds rank in the top 5 foods that have a higher conversion to serotonin,” Raines says. This is why some scientists believe that pumpkin seeds have antidepressant potential – although their role would be as an adjunct to other therapy, not as a cure.
2. They contain fiber.
Pumpkin seeds have about 5 grams of fiber per serving, making them a gut-friendly food. Fiber benefits the gut in several ways: In addition to normalizing bowel movements, fiber consumption leads to an increased diversity of gut microbiota—which leads to a healthier gut. In a 2021 study published in the journal Journal of nutritionscientists found that just a two-week increase in fiber led to a healthier gut.
“Anytime we can make our gut microbiota happy, our brains respond in a positive way,” says Raines.
1. They contain Omega 3.
Pumpkin seeds are a rich source of omega 3, especially the plant form, alpha linoleic acid (ALA). Research has shown a link between too little Omega 3 and an increased chance of developing various mental conditions, such as depression, bipolar disorder and ADHD. Their anti-inflammatory effect, in turn, can also improve mental health – Omega 3s promote brain health by lowering inflammatory markers and maintaining the integrity of our cell membranes.