Food and Mood - The Connection
By Nancy Adler
Originally published in The Boardwalk Journal / June 2013
Having mood swings? One reason could have something to do with the food you’re eating. There are many explanations for the cause-and-effect relationship between food and mood. Fluctuations in blood sugar levels are associated with changes in mood and energy, and are affected by what we eat. Furthermore, brain chemicals (neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and acetylcholine) influence the way we think, feel and behave and can be affected by what we have eaten.
For example, there can be normal reactions to artificial chemicals in foods, such as artificial colorings and flavorings. In addition, there are reactions that can be due to the deficiency of an enzyme needed to digest a food. Lactase, for instance, is needed to digest lactose (milk sugar). Without it, a milk intolerance can build up. Furthermore, low levels of vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids can affect mental health, with some symptoms associated with particular nutritional deficiencies.
There is a psychological relationship between our mood and food choices. It is generally accepted that how we feel can influence what we choose to eat or drink (mood to food). The use of caffeine is one example of this complex relationship. Caffeine found in tea, coffee, cola, soft drinks and chocolate is probable the most widely-used behavior modifying drug in the world. We often choose a caffeinated drink if we are feeling tired and irritable because it can give us a boost and help us to concentrate. Having a cup of coffee or tea also has a lot of positive psychological associations. We meet a friend for “coffee and chat” or give ourselves a break by sitting down with a cup of tea, and these things are very important. But too much caffeine (which is a different amount for each of us) can cause unwanted symptoms such as anxiety, nervousness and depression. Any exploration into food and mood needs to take into account this two-way relationship and include the psychological aspect behind what we choose to eat.
There are also positive connections between food and mood. Vitamins and minerals are some of the best sources to help improve and connect the mind and body. The best bet is balancing a varied diet of health supporting foods. You may need to supplement your diet with extra nutrients however. Its important to get the correct balance between different vitamins and minerals, and to avoid taking any one nutrient in excess. A nutritionist can recommend safe levels of supplementation for individual needs.
For a positive mood boost from food choices, you must examine your diet and consider the fundamentals. The basis of a healthy diet is about achieving a balance between a wide variety of foods, where the variety is spread out over a number of days. Certain foods are eaten on most days, by most people, perhaps because they are generally considered healthy to eat. Unfortunately, these can be the very foods that are having a disabling influence upon your health. It’s often a combination of eating too much of some foods and not enough of others that contributes to symptoms such as depression or anxiety. An essential part in making changes to your diet involves making sure you are not going without the nutrients your body requires on a daily basis. So if you cut down on one food, you will usually need something similar to eat, instead. This may mean, for example, replacing wheat-based bread with bread made from rye flour.
The real foods that negatively affect our moods and cause problems with our weight control are foods containing alcohol, sugar, caffeine, chocolate, wheat (such as breads, biscuits, and cakes in some people) dairy products (such as cheese), certain artificial additives and hydrogenated fats. Other commonly eaten foods such as yeast, corn, eggs, oranges, soya and tomatoes may also cause symptoms for some people. And yet, eating healthy foods can contribute to significant improvements in the following: Mood swings, depression (including postnatal depression), irritable or aggressive feelings, concentration at work, PMS, insomnia, fatigue, behavioral and learning disorders, and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
The most vital substance for the mind and body is water. Good old H2O. It’s so easy to overlook drinking the recommended six to eight glasses per day. Remember that water is a low cost, convenient, self-help measure than can quickly change how we feel, mentally as well as physically.
We need great foods to feel great! Drinking lots of water and having a minimum of five portions daily of fresh fruits and vegetables is key. This provides the nutrients needed to nourish mind and body as one, and, as a holistic approach to healthcare, proper nutrition can help to manage medical conditions. After all, taking care of the mind is just as important as taking care of the body.