Nutrition and Your Mood
Does nutrition affect your mood? Everyone has heard of the term “comfort food.” Those are the foods we turn to when we are feeling down or in a funk. Everyone has their favorite comfort food, but many of us turn to things laden with carbohydrates, fat, and sugar. People feeling a bit off their game will often pick up a candy bar, bake some brownies, or have a big bowl of pasta with alfredo sauce.
For a while, we feel, well…comforted. After a bit of time passes and our food really begins to digest, other symptoms hit us – moodiness, listlessness, and fatigue. When we consume a diet that is primarily constituted of these ingredients, those unpleasant feelings of fatigue stick around – and can make us downright depressed. Indeed, nutrition can have a lot to do with mental health disorders.
How Food Influences Your Mood
The way that we feel, whether happy, angry, sad, or afraid, is directed by tiny little messengers inside of the neurons of our brains known as neurotransmitters. You have probably heard of them in passing – serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Inside of our brain there are at least 100 billion neurons, each of them possessing these neurotransmitters which they send back and forth between one another to relay messages.
Neurotransmitters are what help us do everything from thinking, to talking, to walking, to falling in love. Not all of us are equipped with the same amounts of each of the three neurotransmitters, though, so the way in which we process information can vary greatly among people. Lack or excess of neurotransmitters has a tremendous effect on our moods.
When we are lacking serotonin, for example, we get food cravings, have insomnia, and can become depressed. If our serotonin levels are very high, on the other hand, we feel calm and content. We are possessed with an overall feeling of wellness. Likewise, altered levels of dopamine and norepinephrine can have similar results. So, does food affect your mood? Absolutely!
Nutritional Deficiencies can Lead to Mental Health Disorders Like Depression
Neurotransmitters are made when the body converts amino acids utilizing both B and C vitamins in combination with selenium. If we do not have enough of any of these nutrients, the reactions cannot happen or they are severely hindered. As a result, we do not have many neurotransmitters available in our brains, and we feel depressed.
It is interesting how doctors are so ready to diagnose a person with depression and prescribe SSRI’s (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) and other anti-depressants that cause us to make the most of what few neurotransmitters we have, yet they fail to address the problem of nutrition and advise us that a diet change or the addition of a nutritional supplement may be all that we need to get back on the right track emotionally.
Vitamin B6, in particular, is one of the most important vitamins that helps in the production of serotonin. If you want to get more of that feel-good substance, increase your intake of leafy greens. While B6 is found in fish, poultry, and whole grains, consuming these in large quantities can lead to increased levels of mercury, antibiotics, hormones, and triglycerides, which cancel out the benefits you may be gaining from the elevated levels of B6.
Serotonin production is also heavily dependent on folate. Folate deficiency is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies found in America, and the effects of folate deficiency are no joking matter. If your folate levels are low, there is a good chance you are depressed. Most people who are depressed, studies show, have low folate levels.
Studies have shown that replacing folate and selenium via supplementation can improve depression over time.
Folate can be found in greens as well as beans. They also both happen to contain vitamin B6. Selenium can be found in fish and whole grains. If you are eating a grain-free vegetarian or vegan diet, consider supplementing with an over the counter preparation of selenium.
Carbohydrates: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
There is no doubt that carbohydrates tend to uplift our moods. Why else would we be so passionate about pasta and bread? People who make the change to a grain-free diet undergo serious withdrawal symptoms – so much so that many people report becoming completely fixated on grain based foods to the degree that it interferes with normal daily activities.
Diets high in carbohydrate-rich foods greatly increase the amount of the amino acid tryptophan in our brains. Tryptophan is one of the main building blocks for the neurotransmitter, serotonin. The more carbs you eat, the more content you feel. This is most likely why we turn to carbohydrate rich foods when we are feeling a bit blue or anxious. The converse, naturally, is also true. When we can’t get access to carbohydrates, we feel grouchy and irritable.
It is interesting to note that there are differences between individuals regarding carbohydrates and their effect on mood. Some women tend to excessively crave carbohydrates. Other people can eat tons of bread, pasta, and potatoes and not really notice any difference. One hypothesis to explain these abnormalities is that the people who really crave carbs may be serotonin deficient.
While they may make us feel better and help elevate our serotonin levels, high levels of carbohydrates can increase our risk of diabetes – especially if the carbohydrates we eat are simple carbohydrates or have a high glycemic load. Additionally, getting your mood fix on could be elevating your triglycerides and vLDL (the really bad form of cholesterol).
Using Carbs to Counteract PMS
Some studies have looked at mood swings and carbohydrate consumption – specifically, seasonal mood swings and those affiliated with PMS. Some people tend to consume more carbohydrates during the winter months and put on a few extra pounds in the process. Likewise, women who are about to begin their menstrual cycles tend to seek out carbohydrate rich foods. Is there a reason for these
Scientists speculated and tested the hypothesis that consuming extra carbohydrates during the winter months might improve depression in people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. The result? By increasing the number of carbohydrates they consumed, sufferers of Seasonal Affective Disorder were able to improve their moods significantly.
In another study done on women suffering from PMS, the women were given a carbohydrate rich solution to drink once a month prior to beginning their periods. In a matter of hours, they reported significant improvement in anger, depression, and anxiety. Complex carbohydrates also assist in getting tryptophan into the brain so that it can be converted into serotonin.
Beware of the Carbohydrate Trap
While there are certainly good things to be gained serotonin-wise from eating carbohydrates when it comes to improving one’s mood, there is a nasty little problem associated with consuming carbohydrates – addiction.
Recent research into the way in which carbohydrates work on our brain has shown that when we consume carbohydrates our brains are stimulated in the same way that they would be had we have just done a few lines of cocaine. The serotonin that is produced when carbs are consumed creates an addiction, just like a drug.
Since we are addicted to carbohydrates, we have very little control when it comes to not eating them. Many people grossly over consume carbs and become obese. The fact that most of the food we eat is highly processed only worsens this effect. Processed foods are engineered by food manufacturers to be irresistible. They go to great lengths to tap not only our serotonin response to carbs, but also to trigger similar responses with fat and salt.
When people overeat they gain weight. Millions of Americans are not only overweight, they are obese. Our addiction to carbs has made us not only fat, but sad as a result. So, we need to stop and ask ourselves if it is worth the pounds we will gain if we choose to eat high carb foods? If so, we should probably take a long hard look at our consumption of processed foods. If we need carbs to keep our serotonin high, they should be the healthiest carbs we can get. Otherwise, we will continue to suffer from obesity and other nutrition-related diseases that are 100% preventable.
Foods that Help Mental Health
Carbohydrates make us feel better, but there are other foods that can also improve our mental health. Foods containing Omega-3 fatty acids such as seaweed, walnuts, and flax seed also help in the production of serotonin. Leafy greens contain folic acid that can help relieve depression, insomnia, and fatigue. Fermented foods and tempeh (commonly consumed by vegetarians and vegans) contain active bacterial cultures that assist yet another neurotransmitter called GABA which helps you feel good. Be sure to get plenty of these foods that improve mood.
Does Nutrition Affect Your Mood?
So, in answer to the question “Does nutrition affect your mood?” we can conclusively say, “yes.” It is important, though to consider the ramifications of running out to fill ourselves up with foods that enhance our moods, because the benefits can often be outweighed by the costs to our bodies in other ways.