Next to water and air, food is the most necessary thing in our lives. But beyond its status as a necessity, food can be comforting, nourishing, and supportive. It can bring people together and even provide a sense of community. I say "can" because the quality of your food matters and is what makes it either a potent, health-supportive tool or the slowest form of poison... not just for your physical health but your mental health, too.
6 Facts About the Food-Mood Connection
Your mood influences your behavior and outlook on life and is swayed by the thoughts you think and the food you eat. If you're eating junk, you're probably going to feel like junk. Conversely, eating nutritious, health-promoting foods can make you feel light and full of life. Let's cover a few must-know facts about the food-mood connection.
1. Carbohydrates Can Make or Break You
There are two types of carbohydrates: complex and refined. Complex carbohydrates are abundant in vegetables, fruits, and some nuts and seeds. Refined carbohydrates, on the other hand, are in processed, man-made foods; typically the same stuff that contains a lot of refined sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. Such processed carbohydrates are devoid of nutrients and contribute to vascular swelling, blood sugar spikes, and insulin insensitivity.[1, 2] Even worse, refined carbohydrates derived from white sugar, white flour, and high-fructose corn syrup actually degrade brain health and may interfere with proper neurotransmitter release.
Carbohydrates are necessary for brain health and your body relies on carbohydrates to produce serotonin, a powerful “feel-good” neurotransmitter that also balances the sleep-wake cycle. Complex carbohydrates from vegetables, fruits, and some gluten-free grains like quinoa and buckwheat are the best nutritional sources for keeping neurotransmitter health in check.
2. It's Best To Avoid Gluten
Gluten is a hard-to-digest protein found in wheat and the health effects of gluten and gluten sensitivity are hot items right now. Even if you don’t know much about nutrition, "gluten-free" as a marketing term has probably caught your eye on more than one occasion. So what’s the big deal about gluten? Well, many people are sensitive to gluten and experience ill effects when exposed. Persons with gluten intolerance or celiac disease can have mood swings and irritability.
Why is this? Some evidence suggests gluten may reduce tryptophan levels in the brain. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid crucial for the production of serotonin and melatonin. Both neurotransmitters play a direct role in mood balance. Gluten may also affect the thyroid, which regulates hormones. Hormonal imbalance and mood imbalance go hand-in-hand. I suggest avoiding gluten and choosing complex, gluten-free grains like quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth.
3. Everything You've Heard About Caffeine is Wrong
Need to wake up and be more mentally alert? Grab a coffee! Right? Well, not quite. Although many people reach for caffeine believing that it will give them a rush of energy, the truth is that caffeine is merely a stimulant and does not provide true energy. Calories are the only source of energy for the human body and overconsumption of caffeine merely causes adrenal burnout and exhaustion — essentially the same thing it's used to counteract.
Although some research shows that caffeine may cause a temporary mood boost, continued use can reverse the effect and actually induce nervousness and anxiety. Most significantly, caffeine may block adenosine receptors in the brain and cause negative mental symptoms and mood depression for people who consume it regularly.
If you need more energy, sleep more, exercise more, and eat better food.
4. Whole Foods Are Gold
If you eat processed, prepackaged foods don't be surprised if your mood suffers. Most of these foods are absent of minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants, all of which support brain health and mood. Whole foods are sorely lacking in the diets of most people and this stark truth is reflective of the current state of health in the United States. Conversely, whole foods are anything that hasn't been overly processed and don't have more than one ingredient. They're loaded with potent nutrients to support good health, such as:
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Chia seeds and flaxseed are two of the most widely available plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids. These fatty acids support cardiovascular, joint, and brain health. Whole foods containing omega-3 fatty acids may be helpful for maintaining a steady mood by decreasing anxiety-related symptoms and supporting cognitive function.
B VitaminsNaturally-occurring B vitamins support brain health, and mood stabilization. Low levels of B vitamins, particularly vitamin B12, correlate with a higher incidence of depression.[6, 7]
IronIron deficiency affects over two billion people worldwide. Symptoms of anemia, which can result from a lack of iron, include depressed mood, lethargy, and attention issues. Vegetables like broccoli, asparagus, and parsley are good sources of iron.
5. Adequate Iodine is Non-Negotiable
Your thyroid regulates your hormones, including hormones that affect mood. A mood imbalance may actually be a symptom of a thyroid condition. In fact, thousands of people are being diagnosed with depression simply because their thyroid isn't functioning properly. Iodine is an essential nutrient that supports your thyroid. The diet of most people, even people who consume whole foods, is likely to be deficient in iodine. The best way to avoid iodine deficiency and its mood-destabilizing effects is to supplement with nascent iodine.
6. You Can Eat Chocolate
Before you raid a candy stash, let's be very clear, chocolate has a lot of benefits when you consume it in moderation and you consume the right kind of chocolate. Organic dark chocolate that's at least 65 to 70 percent cacao is a nutrient-dense food loaded with antioxidants and anandamides, compounds known to stimulate brain activity. It also contains tyramine and phenylethylamine, two stimulating compounds helpful for supporting mood, especially in depressed individuals.
The food-mood connection is undeniable and an increasing amount of research demonstrates the relationship between what we eat and how we feel. When it comes to supporting mood, medications aren’t always the answer. We need to begin implementing more broad protocols and balance conventional wisdom with food-based approaches.
What foods do you find help with your mental health? Leave a comment below and share your tips!
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- Choi S, Disilvio B, Fernstrom MH, Fernstrom JD. Meal ingestion, amino acids and brain neurotransmitters: effects of dietary protein source on serotonin and catecholamine synthesis rates. Physiol Behav. 2009 Aug 3;98(1-2):156-62. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2009.05.004.
- Lara DR. Caffeine, mental health, and psychiatric disorders. J Alzheimers Dis. 2010;20 Suppl 1:S239-48. doi: 10.3233/JAD-2010-1378.
- Coppen A, Bolander-Gouaille C. Treatment of depression: time to consider folic acid and vitamin B12. J Psychopharmacol. 2005 Jan;19(1):59-65.
- Fafouti M, Paparrigopoulos T, Liappas J, Mantouvalos V, Typaldou R, Christodoulou G. Mood disorder with mixed features due to vitamin B(12) and folate deficiency. Gen Hosp Psychiatry. 2002 Mar-Apr;24(2):106-9..
- Radin D, Hayssen G, Walsh J. Effects of intentionally enhanced chocolate on mood. Explore (NY). 2007 Sep-Oct;3(5):485-92.
†Results may vary. Information and statements made are for education purposes and are not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. If you have a severe medical condition or health concern, see your physician.