by London Nutritionist Sylvia Hensher
Can you alter your mood through your food?
Many people are seeking to take control of their mental health using self-help, and to find approaches to help reduce the need for, or to use alongside prescribed medication. One self-help strategy is to make changes to what we eat, and there is a growing interest in how food and nutrition can affect emotional and mental health. We don’t have the whole story yet, but there are some interesting clues. Food appears to affect our mood by bringing about chemical and physiological changes in our brain structure.
A survey in the UK (1) of 200 people found that 88% of participants reported that dietary changes improved their mental health significantly: 26% said they had seen large improvements in mood swings, 26% in panic attacks, 24% in cravings, 24% in depression, 22% in irritable/aggressive feelings, 19% in concentration/memory difficulties. People also said that cutting down on food “stressors” and increasing the amount of “supporters” they eat had a beneficial effect on their mood. Stressors highlighted included sugar (80%), caffeine (79%), alcohol (55%), chocolate (53%), wheat-containing foods (48%), additives (47%) and dairy (44%). Mood supporters included water (80%), vegetables (78%), fruit (72%), oily fish (52%), nuts and seeds (51%), ‘brown’ (wholegrain) food (50%), fibre (48%) and protein (41%).
In addition, Mind, a charity which helps people take control of their mental health, has received numerous reports of improvements in a wide range of mental health problems by people making dietary changes, including: mood swings, anxiety, panic attacks, cravings or food ‘addictions’, depression (including postnatal depression), irritable or aggressive feelings, concentration, memory difficulties, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), obsessive-compulsive feelings, eating disorders, psychotic episodes, insomnia, fatigue, behavioural and learning disorders, and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) (2).
Which foods can negatively affect mood?
The foods and drinks that most often cause problems are those containing alcohol, sugar, caffeine, chocolate, wheat (such as bread, biscuits, and cakes), dairy products (such as cheese), certain artificial additives (or E numbers) and hydrogenated fats. Other commonly eaten foods, such as yeast, corn, eggs, oranges, soya and tomatoes may also cause symptoms for some people. A qualified nutritionist can help identify suspect culprits.
How can your food boost your mood?
1. Don’t avoid carbohydrates, but choose the right ones-The connection between carbohydrates and mood is all about tryptophan, a non-essential amino acid. As more tryptophan enters the brain, more serotonin is synthesised in the brain, and mood tends to improve (3). Serotonin, known as a mood regulator, is made naturally in the brain from tryptophan with some help from B vitamins. Foods thought to increase serotonin levels in the brain include fish and vitamin D.
There’s a catch though: while tryptophan is found in almost all protein-rich foods, other amino acids are better at passing from the bloodstream into the brain. Thus, by eating more carbohydrates you can help boost your tryptophan levels; carbohydrates seem to help eliminate the competition for tryptophan, so more of it can enter the brain and help boost your mood. However, it’s important to make good carbohydrate choices like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes, which also support positive mood in other ways by helping to stabilise blood sugar levels and contributing important nutrients and fibre (4).
2. Eat More Omega-3 Fatty Acids-your brain is 60 % fat if you take out all the water. This fatty tissue needs replenishing, but you need to know which fats will nourish your brain the best. Essential fatty acids known as Omega-3 and Omega-6 are intimately involved in brain function and deficiencies or imbalances in brain fats are now known to be associated with numerous mental health problems.
In particular, researchers have noted that omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (found in oily fish, flaxseed, and walnuts) may help protect against depression. This makes sense physiologically, since omega-3s appear to affect neurotransmitter pathways in the brain. Past studies have suggested there may be abnormal metabolism of omega-3 in depression, although some more recent studies have suggested this association may not be as strong as previously thought. Aim for two to three servings of fish per week, of which at least 1 should be oily (5).
Some common symptoms of omega-3 deficiency or omega-3: omega-6 imbalance include:
- Excessive thirst
- Chronic fatigue
- Dry or rough skin
- Dry hair, loss of hair or dandruff
- Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) or breast pain
- Eczema, asthma or joint aches
- Dyslexia or learning difficulties
- Depression or manic depression
The best foods to feed your brain are:
- Omega-3: flax seeds (linseeds), hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, anchovies, eggs.
- Omega-6: sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds.
3. Eat a Balanced Breakfast- eating breakfast regularly can lead to improved mood, along with better memory, more energy throughout the day, and feelings of calmness (6). It seems sensible then to reason that skipping breakfast would do the opposite, leading to irritability, anxiety and fatigue. So what should you be eating for a good breakfast? Lots of fibre from whole grains, nuts or seeds, as well as legumes (such as baked beans), some lean protein, omega-3 and/or omega-6 fats
4. Follow a Mediterranean Diet- the Mediterranean diet is a balanced, healthy eating pattern that includes plenty of fruits, nuts, vegetables, cereals, legumes, and fish — all of which are important sources of nutrients linked to preventing depression.
In particular, the low levels of the B vitamins folate and B12 status have been found in studies of depressive patients, and an association between depression and low levels of the two vitamins is found in studies of the general population (7). These B vitamins help to control “methylation”, a chemical process which goes on throughout the brain and body and helps to turn one neurotransmitter into another. The brain uses these neurotransmitters to communicate, sending messages from one brain cell to another. Folate is found in Mediterranean diet staples like legumes, nuts, many fruits, and particularly dark green vegetables. B-12 can be found in all lean and low-fat animal products, such as fish and low-fat dairy products.
5. Balance your blood sugar levels- The most common underlying imbalance in many types of mood disorders is fluctuating blood sugar levels. The negative effects of imbalanced blood sugar levels include irritability, poor concentration, fatigue, depression and food cravings- especially for sweet foods or stimulants such as tea, coffee and cigarettes, all of which in turn send your blood sugar levels on a roller coaster. Here are the most common symptoms of blood sugar imbalances:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Heart palpitations
- Fainting, dizziness or trembling
- Excessive sweating or night sweats
- Excessive thirst
- Chronic fatigue
- Frequent mood swings
- Forgetfulness or confusion
- Tendency to depression
- Anxiety and irritability
- Feeling weak
- Aggressive outbursts or crying spells
- Cravings for sweets or stimulants
- Drowsiness after meals
A few simple steps you can take to help balance your blood sugar: (more…)