How Food Affects Mood

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“I am too tired to work out or cook tonight. . . really any night.”

I hear it all of the time from people around me. Geez, I used to say it all of the time (and let’s be honest, I still do but not nearly as often). I would get home from work and be exhausted and not want to do, well, anything. I never understood how my diet was affecting my mood until I drastically improved my diet. Now, the more I learn about the connection between diet and emotions, the more I believe that I am in control of how I feel every day. We must remember that the connection between food and mood is complex and varies from person to person. However, studies have shown significant relationships between certain food nutrients and mood that most people can benefit from.

“The doctor of the future will no longer treat the human frame with drugs, but rather will cure and prevent disease with nutrition.” – Thomas Edison

For those that may be protesting this quote already, I am NOT advocating for doctors to stop prescribing anti-depressant medications to those who are depressed nor anti-anxiety medications to those with anxiety. Far from it actually. (I work in the mental health field, I know the critical importance of medications as they relate to health, especially mental health). However, I do believe that psychotropic medications can be supplemented by diet and exercise just like most other medical medications (ex. doctors often want people to improve their cholesterol levels with diet and exercise, not just a pill). So, will an improved, healthy diet eliminate the need for psychotropic medications in all people? Of course not. Will an improved, healthy diet help someone with mental health issues continue down the road to recovery and overall wellness? Yes, I strongly believe it will.

But this just isn’t about someone with a diagnosed mental illness, it is about anyone that eats food. 

Now the difficulty often lies in how food affects our mood as mood also affects the food we choose to eat (What came first, the sadness or the pint of ice cream?).  This becomes difficult because if you already feel depressed, you want comfort foods or foods that make you happy (read: sugar/refined carbs) but these are some of the very things that can contribute to depression, anxiety and any other number of mood disorders.  The food/mood cycle seems much like quicksand, once you are in it, it is really hard to get out.  Much like quicksand, often the solution to the problem is to do the opposite of our immediate response.  If you find yourself in quicksand, you want to escape, so you move quickly-flailing your arms and legs about, but moving makes things worse. Doing the opposite is the key. . .move slowly, progressively and with purpose (you don’t actually stay still, that will just keep you in the quicksand). 

The very same concept can be applied to the food/mood cycle.  If you are already feeling bad (read: anxiety/fatigue/depression) you may choose to go for comfort foods first, but it is those very foods that have the ability to exacerbate your feelings of anxiety, depression and/or fatigue. By doing what our body is telling us to do, we make things worse, dragging us further into the quagmire.  However, the solution, just like with quicksand, is to do the opposite. Eat something you are not craving: does that ice cream look appealing? Eat an apple.  Want potato chips? Choose carrots.  Feel as though you want to lay around all day? Get up and do something physically active.  (In mental health, specifically, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, this is called Opposite to Emotion). This actually works and works well, but the key is to actually do it.

There are numerous studies that attempt to identify what foods and nutrients affect certain moods and there is conflicting information. However, most studies agree on about 10 different mood enhancing foods and/or actions.

Tryptophan: It increases serotonin levels (a mood regulator) with the help of B vitamins. Foods thought to increase serotonin levels include fish and vitamin D. However, it is easier to get tryptophan into the system through smart carbohydrates: whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes.

Omega-3s: These may assist with decreasing symptoms of depression. . . the verdict is still out. However, there are many other benefits to getting your daily dose of Omega-3s (so take that supplement!).

Eat Breakfast: A good breakfast is associated with more energy throughout the day, possibly better memory and more feelings of calm. A good breakfast = lean protein, healthy fats and healthy carbs (think whole grains/fruits).

Eat Regularly: Seriously, eat every 3-4 hours, excuse me, eat something that includes protein every 3-4 hours. Don’t just eat three meals a day. If I don’t eat every few hours, I notice my energy levels depleting and my mood worsens. (Just the other day, I literally started to cry because I needed the sheets washed at that moment, then realizing that I had not eaten anything yet after being up for over an hour . . . ridiculous). It isn’t just me, eating something that includes protein every few hours helps keep blood sugar levels and mood stable.

Folate and Vitamin B12: Studies have shown that as folate and Vitamin B12 consumption decreases, depression rates tend to increase. So eat more leafy greens (not just iceberg lettuce), lentils, asparagus and peas.

Vitamin D: Remember that whole tryptophan/serotonin connection? (if not, you totally skipped ahead and didn’t read it, didn’t you?) Well, it is made possible partly due to Vitamin D which increases levels of serotonin in the brain. However, it is really not known how much you need every day the recommended dosage is about 600 international units (IU) of vitamin D a day (however, make sure to talk to your doctor first).

Selenium: May improve symptoms of depression. Foods rich in selenium include: seafood, nuts and seeds (particularly Brazil nuts), lean meat (lean pork and beef, skinless chicken and turkey), whole grains (whole-grain pasta, brown rice, oatmeal, etc.), beans/legumes, low-fat dairy products.

Caffeine & Alcohol: In people with sensitivity, caffeine may exacerbate depression. (And if caffeine keeps you awake at night, this could certainly affect your mood the next day.) Alcohol is actually a significant depressant and it negatively impacts your sleep, which can make your mood even worse the next day.

Simple Sugars: Carbohydrates from simple sugars are the classic comfort food. Carbs that produce a short surge of glucose in your bloodstream (think carb foods made from white sugar, white flour, white rice, etc.) you’ll get a short-lived sugar high and then get hit with a mood-wrecking crash. For a consistent positive mood, choose whole grain, high fiber carbohydrate sources with lasting powers.

Dehydration: Not having enough water in your system can cause all sorts of problems including: dry mouth, hunger, headaches, low blood pressure and altered mental status. It also can be a very common contributor to fatigue. 

With all of those diet books out there (and everything you see in this blog), the perfect diet to enhance mood and performance remains unknown.  There are many studies that have shown relationships between certain foods and nutrients and mood but some of these findings are still controversial. The best thing to do is eat a well-balanced diet that is rich in numerous vegetables and fruits, high in lean protein and includes healthy fats.  Additionally, getting enough macronutrients is important, so take those supplements! 

The Breakdown:
  1. Eat smart carbohydrates
  2. Get your Omega-3 Fatty Acids
  3. Eat Breakfast
  4. Eat Regularly
  5. Get enough folate and vitamin B12 .
  6. Get enough Vitamin D.
  7. Get more selenium.
  8. Limit caffeine and alcohol intake.
  9. Avoid trans fats and refined sugar.
  10. Drink enough water.

Sources:

Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science

Livestrong

Psychology Today

WebMD

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One thought on “How Food Affects Mood

  1. dizzypru March 11, 2013 at 11:58 am

    Wholeheartedly agree. I was in the quicksand phase of having “funks” (not sure if it was clinical depression, but I wouldn’t be suprised), not able to sleep, etc. In fact, I’m in the slowly moving out of the quicksand phase. For me, the biggest thing about eating better through paleo principles was that I could sleep at night! Getting a good night’s rest has been so key for me to start my day off right – I was so sleep deprived before; sure, some of that was/is because I’m the mom to a 2 year old that sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night, but most of the time I was restless and unable to get to sleep and then easily woke up for no reason. The stress of not sleeping completely compounded my already high-stress job as a lawyer. I need to think of your article and the principles it illuminates any time I want to grab that ice cream cone (that my husband still buys on occasion)! Thank you for your insight. PS: As a Tesla supporter, I’ve always had my reservations about Edison; BUT, I have also always loved his quote. Love him or hate him, he was ahead of his time 🙂

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