IMPROVE YOUR MOOD WITH FOOD
2020 has been a stressful year for us all and the prevalence of anxiety and depression has increased significantly throughout the globe. These increasingly common conditions can be treated in a variety of ways. We’re here to discuss the role our diets play in our mental well-being and how we can fuel our bodies with optimal nutrition to support our minds.
Multiple studies have found links between mental health and our diets. Western diets have changed dramatically over the last couple of years being characterized by high intakes of processed meats, refined sugars and grains as well as low intakes of fibre.
Often, we’re far to tempted to reach for sugar laden foods to help pick up our moods. Tubs of ice-cream, dozens of doughnuts and anything deep fried are the common ‘pick-me-ups’. The over consumption of these types of foods usually leads to feelings of guilt and excessive food restriction in the days to come. Although these foods can be consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet there are options out there that can actually contribute to improving our mood.
When it comes to improving our moods with food here are a few things to consider:
The terms ‘serotonin’, ‘dopamine’ or ‘noradrenaline’ all come to mind when it comes to mental health and brain functioning. These chemicals play a large roll in our mental well-being and happiness. Serotonin is often referred to as the ‘happy chemical’. It is found between our nerves cells, in the digestive system and throughout the brain. A lack of serotonin can result in mood disorders such as depression or anxiety.
Luckily for us, certain foods can contribute to the enhanced production of serotonin. Tryptophan is an amino acid found in certain foods that is a precursor for serotonin synthesis. In other words, consuming foods high in tryptophan can boost serotonin levels naturally. Increased levels have been proven to lower feelings of anxiety and depression1. As roughly 90% of our body’s serotonin is found in the gut, having optimal gut health is also key to aiding with management of symptoms of anxiety/depression.
Food sources of tryptophan include, but are not limited to:
- Lean proteins such as chicken, turkey and eggs
- Pumpkin seeds
- Ricotta cheese
- Edamame beans
- Omega 3 fatty acids:
More and more evidence has suggested that omega 3 fatty acids play a large role in reducing feelings of depression and other mood disorders. Low levels of omega 3’s have been found in those with depression. There are two main types of omega 3 fatty acids namely, EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Both play different roles with EPA being involved in reducing inflammation and DHA aiding in the maintenance of brain cell membrane integrity.
Chronic stress has the ability to affect our immune system which explains the constant state of inflammation experienced by depressed patients. Evidence has shown that severity of depression is correlated with the extent of inflammation. Omega 3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory and thus reduce the inflammatory response as seen in conditions such as depression.
Sources of omega 3 fatty acids include:
- Olive oil
- Chia seeds
- Vitamin D:
A meta-analysis conducted in 2019 concluded that vitamin D supplementation positively influenced symptoms of depression. Dietary sources include salmon, mackerel and eggs but a great source of vitamin D is the sun. Sunlight exposure turns a chemical found in our skin into vitamin D3 which is carried to the liver and kidneys to produce active vitamin D. All the more reason to enjoy an active lifestyle outdoors which has endorphin releasing properties in itself!
- B Vitamins:
The B Vitamins, in particular vitamins B1, B3, B6, B9 and B12, have been shown to improve symptoms of stress as well as improve moods when supplemented in both healthy and at-risk individuals. The B vitamins play a role in a methylation - a process whereby different neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine etc) are formed. Food sources of these vitamins include:
Although sugar gives us that initial high, it can also lead to serious lows. In several populations, they have found a link between depressive symptoms and the intake of sugar sweetened beverages as well as added sugars2. This link may be due to increased levels of inflammation as a result of excessive sugar consumption2.
- Blood sugar levels:
Fluctuating blood sugar levels, or dysglycemia can result in frequent mood swings, excessive fatigue, forgetfulness or confusion, feeling week and numerous other unwanted side effects. In order to prevent both hyper or hypoglycaemia:
- Avoid high sugar foods
- Decrease caffeine consumption
- Consume foods high in fibre
- Consume whole, unrefined foods
- Consume a nutrient rich breakfast
When it comes to what we eat, flexibility is key. Restrictive diets cutting out all forms of sugar and sweet treats often lead to binge eating and unhappiness. On the other hand, consuming mostly sugary foods has also shown to negatively affect our mental health. Consuming foods high in omega 3’s will support our long-term mental health. It’s important to eat foods that boost our serotonin naturally and incorporate whole, unrefined foods into our diets. In addition, regular exercise and adequate sleep will support the above-mentioned points and further ensure optimal mental health!
Written by: Nicole Keeling – Registered Dietitian, @cape.townfoods
1: Lindseth G, Helland B, Caspers J.(2015).’The Effects of Dietary Tryptophan on Affective Disorders’. Arch Psychiatri Nurs, 29(2):102-107.
2: Knuppel A, Shipley M, Brunner E. (2017). ‘Sugar intake from sweet food and beverages, common mental disorder and depression: prospective findings from the Whitehall II study’. Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, 7:6287.