Food to change your mood

January 2, 2009

Food is so closely associated with our emotions that we scarcely give it a thought. We overeat when unhappy or depressed, chomp chocolate to soothe a broken heart and celebrate with special foods to make an occasion memorable. However, it might help you to know that you can manipulate your moods to some extent by paying attention to your diet.

There are some foods in particular which trigger chemicals in the brain and these can have an effect for up to 3 hours on our emotions. I know this first hand because I wrote a book with a naturopath many years ago and she said she always knew when I had been eating chocolate – which I was doing a lot of at the time – because my mood was different and my responses not as fast or open. Knowing which foods can help, or hinder, your mood might be a useful tool to get you through any challenging situations that can arise. There are three neurotransmitters (chemicals) in our brain that affect our emotions: dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Our brain produces them in different quantities depending on certain elements in our food so the more, or less, of these we eat then the more we will feel their influence.

Feeling Good:

We are fairly familiar with the effects of serotonin as it makes us feel calm and positive and modern anti depressants are based on enabling greater serotonin intake. Serotonin is manufactured in the body from the amino acid tryptophan, which is present in most protein-based foods. If you want a natural mood boost then add in some of its best sources: cheese, meat, soya beans, sesame seeds, oats, bananas, dried dates, milk and salmon. Plus of course my perennial favourite – chocolate.

However, given the fashion for high protein diets, please don’t ignore the important role of carbohydrates. If you have a very low, or no, carbodydrate diet then your serotonin production can just cease as the brain needs them to produce serotonin. You may be thinner, but your mood could plummet. In fact you may be doing yourself a disservice by cutting down on carbs as serotonin helps control the appetite by giving us the feeling we are full and stopping us from having that extra helping. If you need to calm down, then reach for a slice of bread, some whole grain cereal or pasta and that will increase your serotonin levels and balance your mood.

Women particularly need to pay attention to their serotonin levels as we have less than men do and therefore are more affected by a low-carb diet. In fact it can lead to symptoms similar to those of PMS, so if you feel any of those you might try just upping your carbs and seeing what difference that makes.

Feeling Alert:

If you are starting to slow down, or even want to have forty winks, and need a quick boost then the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine are the ones that can help increase your focus and alertness. That mid morning slump is often treated with coffee or a biscuit, but in fact for a temporary lift you would do better to head for protein. Having a steak in your coffee break isn’t always appropriate, so snack on something like tuna or eggs. Go to work on an egg was an old slogan, but keep a hard boiled egg handy and you will be as alert at 11am as you were at 9am.

Feeling lethargic:

Our energy levels do fluctuate during the day, but if yours are extreme then one remedy might be to switch to foods with a low Glycaemic Index (GI). These are digested more slowly and release their energy in a more measured fashion and so have much less impact on your blood sugar levels. Look for unprocessed foods, grains, and particular fruits and vegetables. The high GI foods are usually those that are more processed and include baked goods, sugar and that breakfast favourite – cornflakes. If you eat more low GI foods you should be able to contain those energy swings, and for a full view on how to do that there are plenty of excellent books on the subject on Amazon like: The Low GI Diet Cookbook: 100 Delicious Low GI Recipes to Help You Lose Weight and Keep It Off or GI High Energy Cookbook: Low-GI Recipes for Weight Loss, Health and Vitality


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