Food and Mood
Is there a link?
There are a number of different angles in which we can analyze this, but lets keep it simple. I have been very lucky to be part of a National Research project looking at the impact of Adult Learning on Mental Health and how nutrition can play its part.
We have all been through some emotional roller coaster that can effect how we feel and this may also impact on our behaviour with food. For some this can mean a loss of appetite, for others it is an increase in comfort eating. I am sure we can all think back to a time in our lives when food, whether consciously or not, is either our heaven or hell.
However, science has proven that by eating certain types of food, this will have a positive impact on our mental health and the symptoms associated with this. Remember your brain is another organ and like all other parts of the body needs certain nutrients to keep it functioning correctly.
For example the dry weight of the brain is 60% fat, and 20% of that fat is made from the essential fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6. Essential fatty acids cannot be made by the body so they have to come from food. We need to ensure we have enough omega-3 and 6 within our diet to maintain a healthy balance. Omega-6 is the slightly easier one as it's found in poultry, eggs, avocado and nuts. Whereas omega-3 is found in oily fish like salmon, herring and mackerel. You can also get a good source from flax seed and walnuts for the non meat eaters out there.
The brain also needs glucose to fuel it, a great way to include a natural source of glucose is with complex carbohydrates like wholegrain breads pasta and rice. These release the energy slowly to help maintain concentration and avoid peaks and troughs of energy. There are many fad diets out there that drastically reduce or totally cut out carbs, this can have a dramatic effect on your mood, focus and cravings.
Dopamine is the Neurotransmitter in the brain that keeps you alert and active, it's also responsible for your emotions, motivation and concentration. Amino Acids are the protein nutrient for this job, they can be found in beans, chicken, liver, fish, bacon, ham, dairy products, aubergine, potatoes, spinach and tomatoes.
Serotonin, which I have touched on in the past is known as the 'happy' chemical, there has been research which shows that low levels of this can have a real impact on moods and can be associated with depression. Serotonin is made from amino acids called tryptophan, this is a type of protein that is found in foods such as turkey, milk, peanuts, sunflower seeds, bananas and eggs.
Melatonin is a hormone that is produced in the pineal gland in the brain and controls your body clock. Naturally this will rise after the sun sets to try and persuade your body to go into sleep mode, as the sun rises your levels will dramatically be reduced. So if you are having problems sleeping, make sure you turn that night light off as this will effect the amount of Melatonin that's produced at bedtime. A good nights sleep has also been proven to help with mental health, stress and problem solving. Foods that contain small amounts of this hormone are Goji Berries, sunflower seeds, almonds, coriander, oats, rice, ginger, tomatoes and cherries.
And the last Neurotransmitter that I am going to touch on is Noradrenaline. This is produced in the brain and adrenal glands it is responsible for the fight or flight reaction in stressful situations, aggression, moodiness and the responses to stress and anger, it also keeps your brain alert and active. Vitamin C is required to turn this chemical into Adrenalin. Try combinations of dairy, beans, chicken, chocolate, ham, spinach and tomatoes, with foods rich in vitamin C like blackcurrants, spring greens, strawberries, kale, papaya, kiwi, and oranges. Don't forget that vitamin C also helps the absorption of Iron in the body.
Everyone knows how important it is to drink plenty of water, but did you know that the brain is made up of 80% water. So if you are having problems concentrating and can't focus on the job, try a glass of water or green tea. The best way to keep hydrated is to sip water constantly throughout the day, rather than a massive glass every now and again.
Top tips for good food and mood:
- Try to maintain a balanced diet by eating a variety of foods, including plenty of fruit and vegetables. Unless your doctor has advised you to take supplements, this should be enough to provide you with all the vitamins and minerals you need.
- Ensure you eat regularly, starting with breakfast. This is really important as it does what it says in the title - break the fast! Ensure you have 3 meals a day, plus healthy snacks in between, this will ensure you don't have peaks and troughs of energy due to blood sugar spikes.
- Drink 6-8 glasses of fluid every day! Water and milk are all healthy ways to keep hydrated. Tea and coffee are OK as long as you don’t get all your fluid from caffeinated drinks. Avoid sugary drinks as much as possible.
- For a good night’s sleep, choose food and drink rich in tryptophan – such as a milky drink before bed and switch those lights off.
- Try foods high in potassium, like tomatoes, mushrooms, dried fruits, nuts and bananas which are essential for your brain and nervous system and helps to regulate body fluids.
Thinking back to times when you were not feeling yourself, can you relate to any of these food issues, good or bad? I have only touched the surface on the research which is ongoing regarding the connection between nutrition and mental health, but hopefully this will help you realise that their is more to food than just how we look in our clothes.