A Banana a Day Keeps the Psychiatrist Away: The Mood-Food Connection
Most of us know, at least on an abstract level, that what we put in our mouths can alter our minds. We’ve all experienced the post-Thanksgiving (or simply post-lunch) sluggishness and the Oops, I forgot to eat breakfast inability to focus. But beyond the amount and time of day that we eat, the actual foods that we choose can have a major impact on our mental health.
While there are many pathways by which our eating habits can influence the way we feel, physiologically it comes down to neurotransmitters. These are chemicals in our brains whose functions and levels produce shifts in our moods. For example, when our level of serotonin, a neurotransmitter linked closely with depression, drops, we are prone to lowered moods and increased anxiety. And since we know that certain foods increase the production of serotonin (i.e. ones high in carbohydrates), logically we tend to feel better and less anxious when we eat them (and worse when we don’t). Have you ever been around someone on a low- or no-carb diet? Enough said.
Judith Wurton, Ph.D, only one of many researchers in the area of the food-mood connection, also points out that serotonin is linked to feelings of satiety and satisfaction, which are extremely important in the quest to avoid emotional or overeating. If our serotonin levels are low, our brains don’t get the message that we are satisfied and we reach for another slice of pizza. Now, Dr. Wurton isn’t suggesting eating nothing but pasta will turn us into a happy-go-lucky Richie Cunningham. But she does emphasize getting enough of the right foods (and at the right times) to keep us on an even keel.
Despite my apparent bias for serotonin, it’s not the only neurotransmitter affected by our diets (please note the use of the word “diet” here refers to typical eating pattern, not three weeks of eating raw foods). Dopamine and norepinephrine are important too, as they help keep us alert and focused and even increase our reaction times. So basically, eating the right foods can make you a better employee, a more involved partner, and a kick-butt video game player. Who can beat that?
Here are a few suggestions for incorporating some of these “good mood foods” into your diet:
No wonder the most intelligent of our animal relatives love this fruit – it’s packed full of brain-healthy nutrients. Bananas actually produce dopamine quinine, which is a form of dopamine that occurs naturally in the environment. And what’s more interesting is that those unsightly brown spots on the banana actually contain the highest levels! For people whose dopamine levels regularly drop in the evening (e.g. people taking ADHD medication), eating bananas can help curb the effects. Smoothie anyone?
Bite into a juicy burger to boost your mood? Absolutely! Iron-rich foods, such as lean beef, lentils, pumpkin seeds, and cold cereals, assist in the creation of haemoglobin, which helps carry oxygen throughout the body. When iron levels are low, which they are for up to 80% of women, the result is feeling anxious, lethargic, and fatigued. This can lead to major problems in concentrating and getting what you need to accomplished.
Besides being packed with vitamins and anti-oxidants, this leafy green, like its cousins kale and chard, contains lots of magnesium, a mineral found to produce relaxation and calm. In addition, spinach has been found to stabilize blood sugar, which is good for all us in keeping our moods steady. Just remember that spinach loses almost half of its nutrients sitting in the refrigerator for a week, so eat it fast!
Salmon has become quite the hot ticket item in recent years, and for good reason. It is full of omega-3 fatty acids (yes, I said fatty – good fatty), which build serotonin in the brain and have mood-improving benefits. In fact, people who eat fish less than once a week have higher rates of depression than those who eat it more frequently. Not only that, but omega-3 helps your brain heal and has been linked to lower rates of dementia. And salmon is certainly not the only option. Tuna, mackerel, herring, and DHA-fortified products (like certain milk) are great sources as well.
How could I not mention chocolate?! Once again, chocolate derives its benefit by promoting serotonin production, which you know by now is important for maintaining a pleasant mood. It also includes endorphins and opoids, which contribute to feelings of relaxation. This one is tricky, however, as a recent study demonstrated that people who craved chocolate the most had a greater likelihood of being depressed (Rose, Koperski, & Golomb, 2010). They are likely craving the chocolate due to low levels of serotonin, and, unfortunately, not all of our serotonin issues can be solved through a Hershey bar. So, eat a few pieces of dark chocolate as a mood-booster, but if the feelings of depression persist, see a doctor.
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