Food for thought

Saturday, 28 July 2018  |  Admin

Food for thought- Exploring the relationship between diet and mood.

Have you ever thought that what you’re putting in your body might be seriously affecting the way you are able to approach life?

Well, research is focusing increasingly on the link between nutrition and mental health. But the idea that we are what we eat has been around for a long time and it just might surprise you to know just how long ago links were being made between diet and health. Hippocrates, father of medicine, 431 BC stated-

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

As far back as 1902 Thomas Edison, businessman, notable inventor and forward thinker realised that ill health and reliance on medical assistance could be great reduced if people paid more attention to what is actually put into their bodies.

“The doctor of the future will no longer treat the human frame with drugs, but rather will cure and prevent disease with nutrition.”

There appears to be an extremely close relationship between physical and mental health. If your body is functioning well then it’s reasonable to assume this will impact favourably on your mental wellbeing hence the increasing trend for treating people more holistically.

However, if you’re stressed or depressed then it can be difficult to motivate yourself to eat properly or exercise and this in turn might impact on physical health. So, the very fact that you may have a poor diet or be inactive may in turn make you more stressed or depressed…a vicious circle.

Whoever said “You are what you eat”, hit the nail on the head exactly. I think this is probably one of the most powerful statements made about the human relationship with food and how dependant we are on what we put into our bodies.

But how many of us have actually stopped to think about what that actually means? If a car doesn’t have the correct type of fuel then it doesn’t work as well and the same applies to humans, although it’s a bit more complex. Many of us can get away for some time with eating badly but really we’re not functioning to our best ability. For instance, you might be eating the right type of food but not sitting down and taking time to eat and digest properly or then again, you might be leisurely taking time to eat a fried fast food meal. Both of these situations are not ideal.

The National Academy of Science reports that 95% of ALL chronic diseases are caused by diet, the environment and lifestyle factors. This suggests that it is us who ultimately control our health. We are driven to make the choices we make i.e. how we choose to live our lives and what we choose to put in our bodies.

What factors contribute to eating behaviours?

  • Culture
  • Social
  • Genetic
  • Familial

Exactly how does food affect mood?

Take a moment to think about the stressed executive, rushing from meeting to meeting living on fast food often eaten on the run while gulping down copious amounts of strong coffee, or the mum of two pre-school children rushing around making sure the kids are sorted while neglecting herself. All these point to a stressed lifestyle combining poor health choices, maybe lack of exercise and sleep. The problem with this is the vicious cycle previously mentioned…enough to put anyone in a bad mood! What we eat effects our bodies physically and mentally:-

Negative Effects

  • Blood sugar levels are linked to what we eat, if we have eaten sugary foods then mood can be elevated and short term energy levels are high. Conversely, when a ‘crash’ occurs then this can correspond to low mood and energy levels. Anecdotally, people who follow ‘crash’ diets have been said to be anxious and suffer episodes of low mood and irritability.
  • Adverse effects on mood have been reported from eating foods with colourings and/or additives. Processed food also might lack proper vitamins and nutrients or contain by-products and preservatives and chemicals.
  • Chemicals in the brain such as serotonin and dopamine affect mood.
  • Low levels of certain vitamins can cause mood changes including vitamin D which is called the ‘sunshine vitamin.’ Research is ongoing into deficiency and symptoms of depression although its role is as yet unclear; a primary characteristic of seasonal affective disorder is carbohydrate cravings.
  • Deficiency in B12, folic acid and B6 has been linked to symptoms of schizophrenia.
  • ‘Comfort foods’ such as chocolate, ice cream, biscuits and crisps i.e. high in carbohydrates, fat or sugar often trigger short term endorphin release in the brain (1) Emotional eating is closely linked to these kinds of food.
  • Drinking alcohol is a depressant which is thought to interfere with production of serotonin.

Positive Effects

  • Eating ‘rainbow’ coloured foods with lean choices of protein can life the mood and put us in a positive frame of mind, knowing that we’ve made healthy choices also these are rich in antioxidants too which have a host of benefits.
  • Consuming foods rich in Vitamin C reduces cortisol levels in our blood helping to balance stress. Some stress is a good thing. However, it’s when we are unable to switch off the heightened state of ‘fight or flight’ that we may succumb more often to stress-related illnesses.
  • Foods rich in tryptophan (game meat, soy, spinach, prawns, crab) Omega 3 fatty acids (salmon, flax seeds, walnuts, soybeans) and magnesium (spinach, mackerel, sesame seeds, Brazil nuts) are thought to have beneficial effects on mood.
  • Foods rich in Vitamin B6 and Folate are thought to have depression busting properties as they are linked to production of serotonin and dopamine which are vital for mental health.
  • Drinking plenty of water is thought to have a beneficial effect on mood.
  • If we maintain good nutrition involving complex carbohydrates and complete protein then we are better able to control our weight, leading to better body image and less chance of falling into the ‘vicious cycle.’
  • In the review of literature mentioned above by Larry Christensen (2) the role of food is discussed in the attempt to regulate negative feelings across a range of conditions from people with bulimia and pre- menstrual symptoms to people withdrawing from alcohol or tobacco products.

So what can we do to break the vicious cycle?

By understanding the link between diet and mood and the psychology of eating, we learn to make better informed choices from how we fuel our body and mind, which will in the long run help us to eat better, maintaining weight and controlling our mood. Research mentioned in The Mental Health Foundation website says that those of us who eat plenty of fruit and vegetables suffer less health problems.

  1. Eating unprocessed fruits, starchy vegetables and whole grains at regular intervals throughout the day keeps our bodies fuelled and blood sugar level on an even keel.
  2. Combining carbohydrates and proteins enhances the availability of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter said to have a calming effect and to play a role in sleep.
  3. Make meals appealing, varied and prepare in advance.
  4. Pay attention to how and when we eat, setting aside time to not rush food.
  5. Cut out CRAP from the diet- caffeine, refined sugar, alcohol and processed foods.
  6. Sleep and exercise have a huge influence on mood and increase ability to stay away from negative food choices.
  7. Get some exercise. Exercise releases endorphins and getting outside to exercise is a huge mood booster. Those performing some kind of regular exercise report less inclination to snack or overeat and find it easier to commit to a healthy diet.
  8. Include some protein in every meal to ensure a good supply of tryptophan to the brain.
  9. Drink plenty of fluids but avoid dehydrating alcohol
  10. Taking a nutritional supplement might be beneficial for those unable to sustain a balanced, healthy diet and this might include people unable to eat fish or nuts for example.​

 

 


Benton D, Donohue RT (1999) “The Effects of Nutrients on Mood,” Public Health Nutrition. 2(3A):403-9
Christensen, L Ph.D (1992) “Effects of eating behaviour on mood-A Review of the Literature, ”International Journal of Eating Disorders. 14 (2):171-183