Could something as simple as food make a difference to your mood and mental state? And if so, how does this work and which foods are best?
A lot of it depends on the connections between your brain and digestive tract. Due to this close connection, diet and emotions can sometimes go hand in hand. This has even led the digestive tract to sometimes be referred to as “the second brain”.
In your gastrointestinal tract, there are billions of bacteria — and these bacteria can influence neurotransmitter production. In this context, neurotransmitters are important chemical substances that carrying messages from your gut to your brain.
Whenever you eat healthily, you’re actually promoting the growth of so-called “good” bacteria in your gut. This will then have a positive effect on the production of neurotransmitters. On the other hand, if your day-to-day diet is laden with high-sugar junk foods, you could experience inflammation within your gut. This inflammation will make it more difficult for your body to adequately produce mood-boosting neurotransmitters.
Sugar is probably the most common culprit behind inflammation in the gut, Even worse, sugar can help to feed any “bad” bacteria that are currently in your gastrointestinal tract. Sugar is tricky because it can actually result in a temporary spike in certain “feel good” neurotransmitters, such as dopamine. This can be deceptive, leading individuals to believe that consuming sugary foods will boost their mood, making them come back for more.
When neurotransmitter production spikes in this way, it’ll be followed by a crash and this crash will have an extremely negative effect on your mood. This can lead to a sort of vicious cycle, with your neurotransmitter production spiking and plummeting if you regularly consume sugary foods.
If you’re hoping to experience fewer fluctuations in mood, then it may be time to reduce the amount of sugar you’re consuming on a day-to-day basis. A diet based on healthy foods can actually promote an overall happier mindset — it could also make it easier to stay focused.
When food is better for the health of your gut, it’s often also going to be better for your mood and mental health. Here’s a shortlist of some gut-friendly foods, able to enhance the production of mood-lifting neurotransmitters.
1. Dark Chocolate
That’s right, dark chocolate is more than just a delicious treat — it is packed full of other mood-lifting compounds and has less sugar than other treats.
When you consume dark chocolate, you can expect a release of “feel good” compounds, such as theobromine and N-acylethanolamine.
In addition, dark chocolate is full of healthy flavonoids, which can help with the flow of blood to your brain, boost overall brain health, and reduce inflammation. All of these effects can help with mood regulation.
Try to avoid milk chocolate, which is higher in sugar and fat, and isn’t going to have the same benefits as consuming dark chocolate.
2. Fatty Fish
Fatty fish is one of the best dietary sources of omega-3s and is an easy (and tasty) one to incorporate into your diet. For instance, both albacore tuna and salmon are packed full of two particular omega-3s — eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Both EPA and DHA have been linked to lower levels of depression, making them some of the best dietary mood boosters out there.
Plus, omega-3s can help support the fluidity of brain cell membranes.
3. Fermented Foods
Fermented food comes in a wide variety of forms, so it’s harder to get bored with them. Examples of some popular fermented food items are
Thanks to the fermentation process, these foods are loaded with health-supporting probiotics. Basically, during fermentation, live bacteria are given a chance to thrive, and these bacteria will convert the sugars into healthier acids and alcohols.
Worth noting is the fact that not all fermented foods are high in probiotics. For example, foods like beer and some breads have very little probiotics due to the cooking and filtering processes when they are made.
4. Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are chock-full of healthy fats, plant-based proteins, and fibre. Fibre is able to slow down the digestion of other carbs, which means that sugar is more gradually released into your bloodstream. So, less of a spike and a crash, allowing your energy levels to stay stable.
Nuts also provide you with tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid and is responsible for serotonin production. A variety of nuts and seeds (including cashews, almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and sesame) are high in this particular mood-lifting amino acid.
Other nuts, including pine nuts, Brazil nuts, and almonds, are good sources of selenium and zinc. Both of these minerals are quite important to healthy brain function, and a deficiency of them has been linked to higher rates of depression.
While some foods can supply you with a boost in mood, others can lead to a drop, including
Those are just a few examples, although the general rule remains: foods that are high in sugar, as well as foods that are highly processed, are probably going to be worse for your mood. Additionally, alcohol is considered to be a depressant, so long-term it can also have a negative effect on your mental state.
The specific food items you are eating aren’t all that can affect your mood. Your food-related habits and tendencies can also play a role. If you’re looking to boost your mood, consider building a better relationship with food and adopting the following habits:
When you create a habit of not eating for long stretches of time, followed by eating large amounts of food, you’re probably experiencing frequent blood sugar drops. Whenever your blood sugar plummets, you’re more likely to feel irritable, tired, or even depressed. If you’re eating regularly and opting for foods that slowly release energy (whole-grain bread, nuts, and seeds, oats, etc.), your levels are more likely to stay stable, and you can avoid drops and spikes in blood sugar.
Getting Your Five a Day
As well as eating fruits and vegetables, it is important to have the correct amount of them. Having at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day is ideal.
Further, try to eat a wide variety of different fruits and vegetables, in order to get a bigger array of nutrients. Focus on consuming fruits and veggies of many colours, as this is an indicator of the nutrients they may contain.
Meal Planning and Mindful Eating:
Try preparing a week’s worth of chopped veggies and soaked/cooked legumes or beans ahead of time, to make it easier to whip up a homemade meal that could be as tempting as a takeaway.
If meal prepping isn’t for you, stock up on frozen or canned veggies- just look for low sodium products to avoid too much salt. You can also try microwavable grains, such as quinoa, brown rice, or whole-grain couscous.
If you are looking for lower carb options, try swapping your usual grains and carbohydrates with vegetable-based options instead. Look for cauliflower products such as cauliflower pizza crusts, cauliflower “rice” and cauliflower “mashed potatoes”.
No matter what changes you decide to implement, just remember, the basic rules of nutrition still apply. Focus on making a habit of staying hydrated, eating regular meals, and being mindful of how much caffeine and alcohol you consume.
You may not be able to make all of these changes at once and that is fine. Even just small adjustments like being mindful of what you’re eating, and appreciating the good feeling a nutritious meal gives you afterward, can make a big difference over time.
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