Could the food you eat each day be affecting your emotional state? The answer is yes it definitely does, and much more than you realise.
The food you eat determines how well your nervous system functions, how well your brain can produce neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) and your blood sugar level; all of which affect your mood. Your diet also determines your energy levels, and when you are exhausted it’s so much harder to see the funny side of situations.
When you have the blues you are probably driven to seek out unhealthy comfort foods like chocolate, bread, ice-cream, biscuits and cake. Eating those foods does lift your spirits, but unfortunately the effect is very brief. Soon enough your emotions and energy level will crash again and you’ll be caught on the sugar rollercoaster. Relying on comfort foods long term makes you far more prone to mood swings.
I have found that the majority of my patients greatly underestimate the effect of their diet on their state of mind. Many people visit our clinics seeking help specifically for depression, anxiety, mood swings and pre-menstrual tension (PMS). I outline my diet recommendations for my patients, and recommend a few key nutritional supplements. Many of my patients are quite sceptical that such simple diet changes can have a profound enough effect on their emotional state. I manage to convince them to give it a go anyway and when I see them again four weeks later they are very pleased with the results.
Maria came to see me earlier this year with a number of health problems. She desperately wanted to lose weight, had constant heartburn and had a very irregular menstrual period. Maria is 34 years old, is 170 cm tall and weighed 103 kilos.
Maria was one of the most carbohydrate addicted patients I had ever seen; she was constantly eating throughout the day and was terrified of the word “diet” because she didn’t think she’d be able to restrict her food intake. Maria woke hungry, ate toast or cereal for breakfast, a toasted sandwich for lunch and rice or pasta with meat and vegetables for dinner. She confessed that she ate enormous portions. Between meals Maria snacked on chocolate and biscuits and she drank three cups of tea with milk and four sugars in each!
Despite her daily sugar and carbohydrate feasts, Maria was miserable. She was moody and grumpy. Her husband sat beside her quivering while Maria confessed that she often snapped at people at work and raised her voice in arguments. Night time didn’t offer any respite as Maria snored loudly, tossed and turned and would grind her teeth in her sleep. She woke exhausted and ravenous and dragged herself out of bed.
Maria was intimidated about making changes to her diet; she had little faith in her ability to reduce her sugar and carbohydrate intake and her food intake in general. I explained to Maria that it was much more important to change the type of food she eats, rather than worry about portion sizes. She was hungry all the time because she had high blood insulin levels; following our eating plan would lower her insulin and subsequently her hunger would be reduced also.
When I saw Maria for her second consultation six weeks later she looked like a completely different person. For a start she was 13 kilos lighter! Maria could not believe the amount of weight she had lost; she weighed herself once a week first thing in the morning. She could not believe the numbers on the scale and kept rubbing her eyes, imagining that she probably couldn’t see clearly because it was early morning.
Maria found the first week of her eating plan challenging but after that it became increasingly easy to stick to. She was now enjoying her new meals and snacks. Maria no longer experienced any heartburn at all, she was sleeping well and her energy levels were through the roof.
However, the most dramatic difference in Maria was the change in her mood. She looked far calmer and happier and she told me how much more relaxed she feels. Maria said she felt much more relaxed at work and things didn’t bother her like they used to.
Here is a basic summary of my recommendations for improving your mood with food:
- Cut down on or eliminate sugar and flour from your diet. These foods cause fluctuating blood sugar levels, fluctuating energy levels and mood swings.
- Drink eight to ten glasses of water, or herbal tea each day. Drinking more water will make you eat less food, have less sugar cravings and it will improve your ability to concentrate.
- Fill up on protein. The chemicals your brain produces that make you feel happy, calm and alert are all made from protein. Good sources of protein are fish, eggs, poultry, red meat, nuts, seeds and legumes. Tyrosine is a type of protein that helps your brain to manufacture adequate feel-good chemicals.
- B vitamins are important. B vitamins are essential for a healthy nervous system and they are used up in large quantities during stressful episodes. Vitamins B6, B9 and B12 are all required by the brain in order to manufacture neutrotransmitters (brain chemicals).
- Magnesium is the most important mineral for the nervous system and muscles. We often refer to magnesium as “the great relaxer”. Having high levels of stress hormones in your body causes you to lose magnesium in your urine. If you are magnesium deficient you are likely to overreact to minor stressful episodes.
- Limit alcohol consumption. If you are prone to depression alcohol will make it worse. Don’t drink alcohol every day, and when you do drink women should limit themselves to two standard drinks and men four standard drinks.
- Good fat is essential. Your brain is mostly made of fat, and your nerves are insulated by fat. Good fats are found in oily fish, flaxseeds, avocados, nuts, seeds, extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil. Avoid all margarine and cheap cooking oil as they are too high in omega 6 fats, which worsen depression.
- Limit caffeine. People who consume a lot of caffeine have high levels of stress hormones in their bloodstream. Limit coffee to two cups per day. Drink more tea, especially green tea.
By making small and simple changes to your diet you can reduce feelings of anxiety or depression and achieve a more stable mood. And it won’t just be your mind that benefits, the rest of your body will too.