Many of us underestimate the impact of what we eat on our health, energy levels, motivation and mood. Think about it…how often do you choose to eat something ‘nice’ to make you feel better? Why it is that sweets and chocolates are so comforting? We’ve all witnessed how a sweet can placate a child and likewise how chocolate can calm an adult. There is actually a science behind this…sugar and fat cause the brain to release endorphins that deliver pleasure signals all over the body. Probably the most common choice of food to improve mood is chocolate. That is because chocolate contains a group of alkaloids and specifically a substance called theobromine that can induce a feeling of pleasure. Some researchers now speculate that chocoholics may actually have a real biological basis with serotonin deficiency being one factor. However despite these apparent benefits chocolate isn’t necessarily the answer to improving our overall mood! Choosing the right foods and getting the right balance in the diet can actually benefit not only our health but our mood too.
Carbohydrate rich foods trigger the production of serotonin and tryptophan which are chemicals that the brain produces that promote a feeling of well-being. However the type of carbohydrate you consume can influence your mood. Refined carbohydrates, primarily sugar and sugary foods, tend to provide immediate, but temporary relief. Once the benefit is gone, you may go looking for more foods to bring up your mood and energy level. Complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains, cereals, breads, pastas, and fruits and vegetables, are more likely to supply a moderate, but lasting effect on brain chemistry, mood, and energy level.
We know that B-complex vitamins are essential to mental and emotional well-being. They are considered essential vitamins. This means the body cannot make them, so we depend on our daily diet to supply them. B vitamins can be destroyed by alcohol, refined sugars, nicotine and caffeine so it is no surprise that many people in Ireland may be deficient in these.
Vitamin B1 (thiamine) is used by the brain to help convert sugar in to fuel and without it the brain rapidly runs out of energy. Increased irritability and depression are frequently reported in studies where diets are too low in vitamin B1. Too many refined carbohydrates, such as simple sugars can drain the body’s B1 supply. Good dietary sources of vitamin B1 include rye flour, liver and wholegrains.
Vitamin B6 (pyridoxine) aids in the processing of amino acids, which are the building blocks of all proteins and some hormones. It is needed in the manufacture of serotonin, the hormone which helps us feel good. An inadequate intake of vitamin B6 may produce subtle changes in mood. Some research indicates that people who suffer from depression have low levels of vitamin B6. Bananas, oats and eggs are good source of vitamin B6 so having a banana on your porridge in the morning is a good idea.
Another member of the B group of vitamins that is can impact our mood is vitamin B12. Low levels of vitamin B12 can cause mood swings. However deficiencies do take a long time to develop, since the body stores a three- to five-year supply in the liver. Deficiencies tend to more common in vegetarians as our main dietary sources of vitamin B12 are meat, dairy produce, eggs, seaweed and fish.
Folic acid deficiency can cause mood changes also. Folic acid deficiency is a relatively common vitamin deficiency mainly as the best source are green vegetables which are poorly consumed in Ireland. Good sources of folic acid include green vegetables, malt drinks like Ovaltine and dairy produce. Trying to include a green vegetable daily is one sure way of improving your folic acid intake.
Your mineral status is also very important, particularly selenium and iron. Poor mood is associated with a low selenium intake. Many of us are not getting enough of this nutrient in our diets. Selenium rich foods include nuts, seeds, wholegrains, liver and shellfish. Iron deficiency anaemia is associated with lethargy, problems of sustaining attention and poor mood. Ensuring a good intake of iron rich foods is important like lean red meat, dark green vegetables and pulses.
Macronutrients also play an important role in our mood. Macronutrients are carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Recent research has indicated the importance of essential fatty acids omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in helping protect against depression and helping those already suffering from depression. The type of fat we eat has a big influence on our brain, our concentration and how we feel. Omega-3 fatty acids are considered a good fat and the best sources include oily fish, nuts and seeds, functional foods like omega milk and omega-3 spreads can be good options for those who don’t like fish.
Protein rich foods are also important. The old adage of hot milk before bed can actually help relax you. Dairy foods contain an amino acid called tryptophan which is involved in manufacturing serotonin.
So it seems clear that what we eat can indeed influence our mood. Eating greens daily will help boost our intake of B vitamins, a banana a day will provide vitamin B6, nuts will give us essential omega-3 fatty acids and selenium and of course a nice cup of hot coco before bed will combine the calming benefits of milk with the feel good pleasures of chocolate too!