There is a dramatic connection between your diet and your emotions, say experts such as Patrick Holford, a London, England–based nutritionist and the author of The Feel Good Factor: 10 Proven Ways to Boost Your Mood and Motivate Yourself. “Food is a powerful tool that’s often overlooked in its effect on mental health.”
So, how does food influence our mood? It affects the body’s metabolism, hormones and neurotransmitters (mood chemicals that are produced in the brain), and these in turn influence our emotions, concentration and energy, according to Nishi Dhawan, MD, who is co-founder (along with Dr. Bal Pawa) of the Westcoast Women’s Clinic in Vancouver.
Proteins, carbohydrates and vitamins in foods work to keep our metabolism, hormones and neurotransmitters in check, which also balances our moods. By contrast, consuming too much sugar, alcohol and caffeine can cause low moods by bringing on an inflammatory response in the nervous system, says Dr. Dhawan.
There are foods that can help you achieve your desired moods. Here’s what to try:
The Foods to Eat to Be Calm and Relaxed
Pumpkin seeds, leafy greens and almonds: Magnesium, found in pumpkin seeds and leafy greens, is a calming mineral that gets depleted when we’re stressed. For people experiencing more than average stress, a study in Medical Hypotheses suggests supplementing with 150 milligrams of magnesium a day to elevate moods. And to aid in sleep, snack on almonds and pumpkin seeds, which are both high in calming, sleep-enhancing gamma aminobutyric acid and tryptophan.
Wine: In addition, enjoying a glass of red or white wine a few times a week can help reduce the fight-or-flight hormone adrenalin, resulting in a more relaxed mood and an improved memory, says Holford.
The Foods to Eat to Be Happy
Asparagus, beans, peas, egg yolks, sunflower seeds, spinach, meat, fish and poultry: Load up on foods containing folate (found in asparagus, beans, peas, egg yolks, sunflower seeds, spinach and liver), vitamin B6 (found in leafy greens and seeds) and vitamin B12 (plentiful in fish, poultry and meat). These B vitamins work to keep homocysteine levels low. Homocysteine is an amino acid produced by the body, and high levels can be a predictor of depression, especially in women, according to a study published in Archives of General Psychiatry. The study found that having homocysteine levels above 15 (normal is seven or lower) doubled the odds of women becoming depressed. Vitamin B6 aids the adrenal glands in producing adrenalin, which controls your body’s fight-or-flight response to stress. (Stress also causes our metabolism to use up more vitamin B stores.) A bonus: Vitamin B6 may also relieve PMS symptoms, says Dr. Dhawan.
Leafy greens, legumes, nuts and eggs: These types of foods are packed with vitamin B, which helps to create neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which calms and reduces anxiety. Women are biochemically more prone to low serotonin, says Holford. That’s because our bodies react to worry and anxiety more acutely than men’s, so greater amounts of serotonin are required and, as a result, levels may become depleted. Holford also recommends taking a B12 supplement (after checking with your doctor, of course).
Onions, romaine lettuce and tomatoes: Chromium, found in these three foods, is essential for insulin production, which regulates our blood sugar. Keeping blood sugar in balance is key to stable moods. Chromium also increases serotonin. According to a 2003 study in Biological Psychiatry, if you’re often tired and prone to mood dips (also known as atypical depression), but are not chronically depressed, chromium deficiency might be a factor. The study found that 70 percent of people with atypical depression showed improvement after taking chromium supplements for eight weeks.
Fish, flaxseed and certain oils: The omega-3 fatty acids in fish, ground flaxseed, and hemp and avocado oils may relieve, and protect against, depression. “Studies have shown you can predict a country’s rate of depression by its seafood intake. And the more fish the population eats, the lower its suicide and homicide rates,” says Holford. Scientists at the U.S. National Institutes of Health associated the increase in depression in North America during the last century with the decline in consumption of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), found in omega-3 fatty acids. Our brains are 60 percent fat and a substantial amount of that is “essential fat,” similar to that found in fish. These essential fats need to be replenished by the foods we eat to help keep our emotions positive. As well, research has shown that vitamin D deficiency can cause low moods, and oily fish is one of the highest sources of vitamin D, says Pawa.
Poultry, red meat, shellfish and whole grains: The amino acid tryptophan (found in shellfish, red meat and poultry) helps to create serotonin. When tryptophan is low, we’re more prone to depression and anxiety. But be sure to eat whole-grain carbohydrates, such as brown rice and quinoa, along with your protein to ensure you are able to properly absorb the tryptophan.
The Foods to Eat for More Energy
Spinach, bell peppers, clams and seafood: Deficiencies in iron and vitamin B12 can cause anemia, which contributes to low energy. Boost your intake with proteins high in B12, such as clams, oysters, mussels, octopus and liver, and with leafy greens including spinach. Since vitamin C aids in iron absorption, combine eating spinach with vitamin C–rich bell peppers and tomatoes, recommends Pawa.
Eggs, lamb and lean beef: These all contain the amino acid tyrosine, which increases levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine—your “get-up-and-go” brain chemicals. “And adopting lifestyle habits such as getting enough sleep, not skipping meals, having regular bowel movements and exercising are as important as food to increase energy,” adds homeopathic doctor Bryce Wylde.
The Foods to Eat to Be Alert and Focused
Avocados, bananas, beans and poultry: These four foods contain tyrosine, which builds the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, both of which boost alertness and concentration.
Seeds, nuts, beans: Zinc, found in all three of these, helps to turn omega-3 fats found in fish and seed oils into prostaglandins, which are vital for concentration, according to Holford. Bonus: A 2009 study in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that zinc helps improve treatment outcomes in patients who are resistant to antidepressants.
Water: Dehydration can also contribute to poor concentration and low energy, so try to drink lots of water every day to stay hydrated, says Pawa.
Foods that Helps you Avoid Anxiety and Depression
Camomile tea with a slice of lemon: Drinking herbal tea such as camomile relieves anxiety by aiding the nervous system, says Dr. Dhawan. And vitamin C, found in lemons, helps the adrenal and immune systems cope with stress.
In periods of high stress, vitamin C is released in large amounts and its stores are rapidly depleted. “People who have low vitamin C levels have been shown to have an increased stress response,” explains Dr. Dhawan.
Seafood, Brazil nuts, red meat, whole grains and legumes: Selenium found in these foods may reduce anxiety and improve mild depression. That’s because the amino acid tyrosine, which increases your “happy” hormone dopamine, is selenium-dependent. Taking a daily supplement of selenium for seven weeks improved mild and moderate depression in 16 elderly participants in a Texas Tech University study.
October 2011 issue of Best Health magazine