Food and your mood!
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 for 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 the 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
Here are a few simple steps you can take to help balance your blood sugar:
A. Never skip meals, especially breakfast, which literally means “breaking your overnight fast”. Ensure that you eat at least every 3 or 4 hours, taking healthy snacks as necessary to make sure your cells have enough fuel to function properly. Small, regular meals help to maintain energy levels and mood, while decreasing tiredness and irritability.
B. Ensure each meal and snack contains some protein, such as lean meat, chicken, fish, eggs, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds. Protein helps to slow the release of sugar into the blood stream and therefore helps stabilise mood.
C. Avoid sugar and foods containing sugar such as white bread/ pasta/ rice, chocolate, biscuits, sweets or anything with added sugars. Hidden sugars are also included in many cereals, breads, tinned produce and processed/ packaged foods. Note that excess alcohol can also cause imbalanced blood sugar levels.
D. Stimulants such as tea, coffee and cigarettes may provide a temporary energy boost, but send your blood sugar levels on a rollercoaster ride and compromise mood and energy levels in the long run.
E. Tropical fruit (melon, grapes, banana, pineapple, mango, dates etc), dried fruit and fruit juices can also be sources of concentrated sugar, so keep these to a minimum. Instead include other fruit such as cherries, berries, apples and pears, which aren’t so sweet.
F. Eat a high fibre diet rich in fresh vegetables, fruit, seeds, nuts and legumes. Fibre helps keep your blood sugar level even.
Certain vitamins and minerals can help regulate your blood sugar level and minimise the withdrawal effects of stimulants. These include vitamin C, vitamin B complex, especially vitamin B6, and the minerals magnesium. A nutritionist can help determine whether you might have any deficiencies.
How else can you boost your mood
1. Exercise regularly
Research has shown that exercise reduces patient-perceived symptoms of depression when used as a therapy on its own (8). It relieves symptoms as effectively as cognitive behavioural therapy or pharmacologic anti-depressant therapy and more effectively than bright light therapy. Resistance exercise and mixed exercise (resistance and aerobic) appear to work better than aerobic exercise alone. In addition, “Mindful” exercise, which has a meditative focus, such as tai chi and yoga, also reduces symptoms of depression.
The message here is clear: if you’re feeling low, start thinking about how you can get fitter. It doesn’t have to be high-tech; climbing stairs instead of taking the lift, swimming, cycling, walking to and from work (at least part of the way) are all simple ways you can help yourself get fitter to boost your mood.
2. Get enough vitamin D
Why is vitamin D so important? Because low levels have been associated with depression and seasonal affective disorder, which in turn have been shown to improve as vitamin D levels increase to optimal levels (9-10). Vitamin D increases levels of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain but there are many individual differences which can affect our vitamin D levels.
For example, very few foods naturally contain vitamin D. Fortified milk, egg yolks and oily fish are the best sources, but the major source (80 – 100%) of vitamin D is actually sunshine. Ultraviolet B (UVB) sunlight rays convert cholesterol in the skin into vitamin D. Our body’s ability to produce all the vitamin D it needs from sunlight however depends on age, skin colour, geographic latitude, seasonal variations in sunlight availability and sunscreen use. For example, darker skins need more sun to get the same amount of vitamin D as a fair-skinned person. In addition, because of geographic location and sunlight availability, people in the United Kingdom cannot synthesise vitamin D from November to the end of March.
How do I find out if food is affecting my mood and mental health?
Try keeping a food and drink diary every day for about 1-2 weeks to see if there are specific foods that could be affecting your emotional health. If you write down what you eat and drink at the time you have it you will get a more precise idea how foods and mood might be related. Also noting down the time and the approximate amounts you consume helps. Not only are people often surprised when they look back over what they have eaten, but they become more aware of how food and emotional health are connected.
How can I go about changing my diet?
Smaller changes, introduced one at a time, are easier to manage and keep up, should you find them beneficial. Changing what you eat takes a bit of effort and time; trying out new and different foods may mean you need to shop in new places. If you make more than one change at a time, then you won’t be able to tell what is having an effect! Some changes may even be unnecessary, although you won’t know until you try.
Sometimes, a change to the diet produces some unpleasant side effects, for the first few days only. For example, if people suddenly stop drinking coffee, for instance, they may get withdrawal symptoms, such as headaches, which then begin to clear up after a few days, when they start to feel much better. Symptoms such as these can be reduced if you cut down gradually. There are, necessarily, some costs associated with making changes to what you eat, but these can be rewarded by significant benefits to mental and physical health. A nutritionist can help guide you in assessing whether dietary changes would benefit you and also help make practical, realistic modifications that you can sustain in the long-term.
(1) The Food and Mood Project (2002) The food and mood project survey: a summary of the findings. An exploration of dietary and nutritional self-help strategies used to improve emotional and mental health. more…
(2) Elaine Magee (2008) How Food Affects Your Moods more…
(3) Appleton KM Woodside JV Yarnell JW Arveiler D Haas B Amouyel P Montaye M Ferrières J Ruidavets JB Ducimetiere P Bingham A Evans A (2007) Depressed mood and dietary fish intake: direct relationship or indirect relationship as a result of diet and lifestyle? J Affect Disord 104 1-3 217-23
(4) Lombard CB (2000) What is the role of food in preventing depression and improving mood, performance and cognitive function? Med J Aust 173 Suppl: S104-5
(5) Coppen A Bolander-Gouaille C (2005) Treatment of depression: time to consider folic acid and vitamin B12. J Psychopharmacol 19 1 59-65
(6) Gill A Womack R Safranek S (2010) Clinical Inquiries: Does exercise alleviate symptoms of depression? J Fam Pract 59 9 530-1
(7) Gloth FM 3rd Alam W Hollis B (1999) Vitamin D vs broad spectrum phototherapy in the treatment of seasonal affective disorder. J Nutr Health Aging 3 1 5-7
(8) Barnard K & Colón-Emeric C (2010) Extraskeletal effects of vitamin D in older adults: cardiovascular disease, mortality, mood, and cognition. Am J Geriatr Pharmacother 8 1 4-33