Eat your way to happiness
If you feel as if you need cheering up, the answer could be on your plate, says one leading nutritionist
HAVE you ever experienced a day when in the morning you felt fine, but after lunch you felt down and tired?
Certain foods could improve your mood, provide uplifting energy and make you feel more alert. Whether you only feel blue from time to time, or are prone to PMS or depression, eating a diet high in ‘goodmood foods' and low in ‘mood-zapping foods' can go a long way to balancing how you feel physically, mentally and emotionally.
The brain communicates by chemical substances passed from one nerve cell to the next. These chemicals, called neurotransmitters, are made in the brain from the food we eat. One of the neurotransmitters that is most sensitive to diet is serotonin, also known as the ‘happy hormone'. Our bodies produce serotonin from an amino acid called tryptophan, which comes directly from food.
Serotonin is a calming and relaxing chemical. When it is produced, feelings of stress and tension decrease, and our sleep cycle is regulated.
Women are three times more prone to low moods than men. Research suggests the cause of this lies in the fact that women are more prone to low levels of serotonin.
Serotonin deficiency can be brought on by many factors including hormone imbalances, stress, imbalanced blood sugar and nutritional deficiencies. However, we can fight back! Below are some simple dos and don'ts to help you banish those blues:
1> Balance your blood sugar
If you regularly crave sugar, caffeine or carbohydrates there's a good chance that you have a blood-sugar imbalance. If you lose blood-sugar control you can end up being trapped in a vicious cycle of sugar highs and sugar lows which leave you feeling irritable, moody and craving sugar. Balancing your blood sugar is an important step in regaining control over your mood and banishing PMS. Reduce the amount of sugar and refined carbohydrates in the diet and replace caffeinated beverages with herbal teas.
2> Protein with every meal
Eat a portion of protein with every meal and snack. Not only does protein help keep bloodsugar levels balanced, it also contains the amino acid tryptophan, needed for serotonin production. Some foods high in tryptophan include turkey, cottage cheese and bananas.
3> Increase B Vitamins
B vitamins play a crucial role in the production of serotonin. Prolonged stress or anxiety can easily deplete our body stores of B vitamins, so it's important that we consume foods rich in B vitamins daily, such as oats, brown rice, eggs and green, leafy vegetables.
4> Omega 3
Rates of depression directly correlate with the amount of fish eaten — the Japanese eat 10 times more fish than we do in Ireland and they have 10 times less depression! Oily fish are an excellent source of a particularly good fat called omega 3. Omega 3 naturally increases a potent mood-lifting, anti-depressant neurotransmitter in our brain, called dopamine. It also slows the breakdown of serotonin. Aim to have oily fish three times weekly, or consider taking a good-quality fish-oil supplement.
5> Reduce alcohol
Excessive alcohol consumption has a profound effect on our mood for many reasons. It depletes B vitamins from the body, it interferes with our blood sugar balance and it alters the neurotransmitters which dictate our mood, sleep and wellbeing. Avoid consuming more than 14 units of alcohol per week (seven good-sized glasses of wine) and avoid binge drinking. Music star Katy Perry gave up alcohol last year because she wanted to focus all of her energies on her career.
6> Vitamin D
Very few of us receive enough sunlight for our bodies to make vitamin D, or eat enough vitamin D in our diets, and this is known to be a critical factor in boosting mood. Consider taking a vitamin D supplement during the winter months and eat vitamin D rich foods such as eggs, green leafy vegetables and oily fish. Try taking your exercise outdoors as much as possible.
7> Food allergies
Allergies to certain foods can adversely affect mood and behaviour. For example coeliac disease is greatly under-diagnosed and a common cause of depression. If you suffer from low mood/anxiety along with digestive problems and/or sinus or skin rashes, it may be worth taking a food intolerance test, or keep a food diary to monitor your reactions. Hollywood star Drew Barrymore is said to be allergic to garlic and coffee.
8> Gut health
If you've ever had your stomach in knots before speaking in public, then you know the stomach listens to the brain. Many scientists even refer to them as one entity; the brain-gut axis. What affects the stomach will affect the brain and vice versa. There is a symphony of chemicals in the digestive system that balance our emotions, sleep, pain and energy.
Keep your gut healthy by reducing the amount of sugar and alcohol in your diet and by eating pre-biotic foods such as garlic and onions or natural probiotic yogurt.
Elsa Jones is a nutritional therapist and presenter of How Healthy are You? on TV3. Elsa offers one-to-one consultations to meet your individual health requirements as well as group nutrition courses.