How food impacts our mood
Eating right helps us stay fit and healthy and has even been to shown to ward off serious illness like heart disease, Alzheimer’s and cancer. But what about its effects on our mental health? Not necessarily just brain function and sharpness – both of which have been proven to improve with the right diet – but specifically, how does food impact our mood? Are there really certain foods that make us feel happy and others that make us feel sad?
While it is never all that simple when it comes to the human body, the science is very clear: dietary factors can bring about changes in the structure of the brain – both chemically and physiologically – which will absolutely have a bearing on our mood.
Broad reaching studies on food and mental well-being have also shown clear links between positive diet changes and mood improvements. Equally, countless studies point to links between poor diet and low mood – with unhealthy eating habits regularly cited as a contributory factor in cases of depression.
Let’s take a look then, at both sides of the coin – not just how food impacts our mood, but exactly what we can eat to perk us up, and what foods to avoid when we’re feeling down.
Can you eat yourself happy?
Before we get into the precise foods that will put a smile on your face – or wipe one off it – it should be mentioned that quantity is just as important as quality. Overeating tends to lead not only to feelings of guilt at having over-indulged, but it also makes us feel sluggish and demotivated – which only goes to sour our mood even further.
In the same manner, under-eating can also leave you wandering around under an ever-present grey cloud. In fact, depression and low mood are some of the most common effects of under-eating, and those who eat too little are more often prone to feelings of irritation and anger – and in some cases panic attacks.
Studies on food and mental well-being have also shown clear links between positive diet changes and mood improvements
So, once you’re happy that you’re taking in the right amount of food, let’s look at which ones are likely to set-off those happy hormones.
When eating yourself happy, B vitamins are your friend. Foods such as asparagus, seeds, spinach, red meat, fish (particularly shellfish) and poultry are the ones to go for. The B vitamins in these foods in particular work to reduce levels of the amino acid homocysteine – which in high levels can be a predictor for depression. Vitamin B6 will also light a fire under you adrenal gland – which is responsible for producing adrenaline – and helps to mediate our stress response.
Fish, and certain seeds like flax, also contain omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D – a deficiency of which can cause poor mood. In fact, a worldwide study by the American National Institutes of Health claimed it was possible to predict a country’s depression rate based on their seafood intake. That is, the more omega-3, the less instances of depression, and vice versa.
And there’s more good news for lovers of la fruits de mer, too, as tryptophan – found in shellfish (as well as red meat and poultry) – helps to create the happy hormone, serotonin. What’s more, the lower our tryptophan levels, the more prone we are to anxiety.
Foods that will steal your sunshine
As we’ve covered on this site many times, eating the right foods is largely redundant if you’re also filling up on all the naughty foods that are only going to drag you down.
The first culprit on our list is actually a drink – and you don’t really need me to tell you which one. Yes, alcohol, or rather an excess of it, is a sure-fire way to leave you feeling down in the dumps. Regular alcohol consumption has been shown to change the brains chemistry – leaving you vulnerable not only to down days, but to long-term depression. Of course, I’m not telling you to bin the bottle completely – we all like the occasional tipple – but as with much in life, indulge in moderation.
The next mood-killer on our list is another repeat offender – sugar – and this time, yup, I’m going to straight up ask you to banish it completely. Sugar is your body’s enemy. Your body doesn’t want it, and it certainly gets zero benefit from it. I never understood why we talk about daily limits of foods that we should not be eating at all. It’s like saying “A little bit of poison is fine, just don’t take a lot of it.”
Excess sugar causes a cavalcade of chemical reactions throughout the body, wreaking havoc in the brain and, crucially, suppressing the activity of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) – a key growth hormone, of which low-levels can be a sign of depression and in extreme cases, schizophrenia.
Finally, let’s talk about our awkward friend gluten – the scourge of the Western world. Gluten lurks round every corner in the Western diet that is so popular throughout the UAE – and it’s causing us a whole host of problems, not least when it comes to our mood. Several studies have shown gluten to inhibit production of serotonin as well as dispersing countless brain disruptive opioid peptides – which have a neurotoxic effect – and have been linked to mood-swings and, once again, depression. It’s also worth noting that both gluten and sugar are largely responsible for leaky gut, which is known to be a major cause of mood change (read David Perlmutter’s the “Grain Brain”).
Good food = good mood
I can’t stress enough how much of an effect what we put in our bodies has on us. Food is really the biggie in life. We are eating daily so many things we as humans should have never even started eating – ever.
Now while the physical side of things is obvious (just look at the insane obesity rate increases over the past decades and the rise of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and on and on), the mental well-being side of things should be given much more scrutiny by all of us.
While low mood is something that affects us all from time to time, we can’t ignore stats that show us depression rates in the UAE have more than doubled in the last decade. Sure, there are many factors to consider, but we tend not to associate food with mental health, whereas I am here to tell you there is a direct correlation.
And on a final note, think about what we are doing to our children here. Sending them off to school after giving them a breakfast of sugar-coated cereal – often topped with even more sugar (hey, if we give them the option, they will take it) is rather irresponsible of us. Very soon thereafter they are going to “crash” as their blood sugar levels – which were driven up way too high by that awful breakfast – plummet. The impact on their mood is severe, and so too on their performance in school.
Switching to healthy eating is really the only advice I have. In words it is that simple, in actions, well, that is up to you.
- – -
Graham Simpson, MD is Chief Medical Officer and Founder of Intelligent Health, a preventive medical centre located in Jumeirah. Dubai. He graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is board certified in Internal Medicine and Emergency Medicine. As a founding member of the American Holistic Medical Association (AHMA) Dr Simpson is also a licensed homeopath.