“The link between food and mood is cyclical. If poor eating habits are the initial problem, then depression, mood swing, poor concentration, or fatigue can develop as a result of dietary deficiencies & excesses, which in turn result in more bad food choices.” ~ Elizabeth Somer, Food & Mood.
Have you observed the food choices made when you are in a bad mood or depressed? More often than not we use food as a coping mechanism when we are upset; like indulge or go overboard with sugary, fatty, carb-y and unhealthy foods. You probably know that these kinds of food will make you temporarily feel better while you’re eating them but you’re likely to feel worse later.
There is a clear connection between negative emotions and unhealthy foods. A study conducted by Cornell University, Food & Brand Lab on how mood influences food choices stated that the “individuals select healthy or indulgent foods depending on whether they are in a good or bad mood.”
In 2010, researchers found that people in a positive mood were more likely to choose grapes over chocolate than those in a neutral mood. Another study found that people would choose healthy foods if they felt like their good mood was going to stick around; if not, they might eat more indulgent foods, to keep the good vibes going.
The Brain-Gut connection
Several studies over the years have established the fact that the condition of the gut influences one’s mental health. It is said that the Human body consists of two brains, one, located in our head and the other is in our gut. They develop from the same cluster of tissue wherein one section evolves into a central nervous system (brain) and another one into enteric nervous system (gut).
Both are connected by the Vagus nerve, the tenth cranial nerve running from the brain stem to the abdomen. Chemicals (hormones, neurotransmitters) that control the brain in the head are found in the gut brain as well. Due to this linkage between the brain and gut, researchers have found that a healthy gut helps in maintaining good mental and emotional health.
How can you use food to boost mood?
Eating certain foods can not only improve your mood but also build your bodies resistance to stress and help you feel more energetic, alert and motivated.
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for good health and well being. Not only does our body need these fatty acids to function but it also has wide range of benefits including significant reduction in depression levels. Studies show that in depression we reach out for sugar & carbs that further aggravate the problem.
Opting for foods rich in Omega-3 is known to help form cell membranes through out the body, keep those membranes flexible, regulates the flow of the hormones along with influencing other chemical messengers that help in improving our mood.
According to Gary Null, author of The Food-Mood Connection, “There is a huge amount of evidence now linking Omega-3 deficiency with depression. Around a quarter of the dry weight of our brains is made up of Omega-3s and if you’re deficient, the cells in your brain malfunction and you’re much more likely to become depressed.”
Omega 3 fatty acids can be found in salmon, tuna, herring, shrimp along with vegetarian options including walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, leafy vegetables etc.
Dark Chocolate to lighten your mood
The first option that comes to mind when you are having a bad day would be to reach out for caffeinated beverages or high sugar food. But here’s the thing: too much sugar impacts BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor) chemical, which is integral for brain tissue growth.
“Research has shown that high sugar diets (along with high fat diets and lack of essential fatty acids) decrease a BDNF. In fact, the relationship between BDNF and sugar gets even more interesting: low amounts of BDNF actually lead to insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and even diabetes. This means that high sugar in the blood leads to low BDNF, and then low BDNF leads to a worsening of blood sugar control, which leads to high blood sugar, which leads to worse blood sugar control… and the cycle continues.”
The cure to mood swings can be dark chocolate as it contains several chemical compounds that have a positive effect on our mood and cognitive health. Chocolate contains phenylethylamine (PEA), the same chemical your brain creates when you feel like you’re falling in love. PEA encourages your brain to release endorphins (the feel good hormone), so eating dark chocolate is certainly going to improve your mood. Besides, its also good for the heart and circulation, reduces risk of stroke, can help you lose weight and its also packed with beneficial minerals like potassium, zinc and selenium.
Green tea for sleep troubles
Often people suffering from sleepiness reach out for caffeinated drinks like coffee, tea, cola or energy drinks, but what we are doing here is only seeking temporary relief. Somer said caffeine blocks adenosine, the energy-boosting brain chemical, which makes us crankier and more irritable. Instead of your regular coffee or tea, think of having green tea.
Green tea contains the amino acid theanine, which has been shown to help reduce stress and promote a restful sleep. However, the high caffeine level of regular green tea can outweigh these benefits when you are trying to calm down in the evening, so be sure to go for decaffeinated varieties.
On the contrary, people suffering from insomnia might be caffeine sensitive, i.e even one cup of a caffeinated drink early in the day can leave them wide awake at night & exacerbate depression. Heavy breakfast and eating light dinner helps in maintaining healthy sleep patterns.
Apart from helping you combat insomnia, Green tea is rich in antioxidants like polyphenols & epigallocatechin gallate, which helps reduce ageing, improves brain function, physical performance as well as lowers the risk of cancer. Chamomile tea is another helpful and safe sleep aid.
Fight fatigue with Iron-rich foods
Fatigue is one of the most common causes of frustration, lethargy and mood swings. Most of the times when we are under the weather, we might overlook it as laziness. But fatigue can be a serious indicator to bigger issues. This issue stems from lack of iron which results in low red blood cells.
Somer mentioned in her book that as few as 5% women are anaemic, but about 80% of women who are active, exercising or premenopausal are suffering from iron deficiency, which is the biggest contributor to fatigue.
To reduce this deficiency, non-vegetarians can opt for lean meat, liver, beef, oysters, seafood and poultry products. Whereas vegetarians can go for beans, whole grains, leafy vegetables like spinach, broccoli, berries, melons; pair them with vitamin-C-rich foods like bell peppers, berries, and broccoli to boost your absorption. Also, staying hydrated is one of the easiest ways to stay alert and energized.
Ayurveda: One-step solution
“Herbs are like food; they are catalyst to bodily functions. Conventional drugs don’t balance bodily systems; they either stimulate or inhibit.” ~ Bev Maya
Ayurveda restores the balance between the body, mind & consciousness. When any of the three separates, it leads to imbalance and blockage in our system. The cause of the separation can be accounted to stress either emotionally, physically or mentally.
To counterbalance the stress levels and maintain perfect harmony, adaptogenic herbs like Indian Ginseng, Gooseberry, Ginseng, Gotu Kola etc. reduce the effect of stress without sedating or stimulating, build immunity, vitality, strength & energy levels.
It also balances the doshas (Vata, Pitta, Kapha) and maintains a healthy flow of the prana. An article on adaptogens by David Winston stated, “adaptogens work primarily by affecting the Hypothalamic/ Pituitary/Adrenal (HPA) axis and the Sympathoadrenal System (SAS). Thus, adaptogens modulate our response to stress (physical, environmental, or emotional) and help regulate the interconnected endocrine, immune, and nervous systems.”
Other mood enhancers
Get your dose of Vitamin D by increasing your exposure to daylight; doing exercise outdoors is ideal as both daylight and exercise are known to boost serotonin levels. Bananas for dopamine (a natural reward chemical that boosts your mood) and B vitamins, including vitamin B6, which help to soothe your nervous system, and magnesium, another nutrient associated with positive mood. Also turmeric has neuroprotective properties and may enhance mood and possibly help with depression.