Many of us do it. We get upset, anxious, nervous, angry, stressed, bored, lonely or even happy. And then, we eat. We grab cookies, candy, chips, ice cream, bread, mashed potatoes, and chocolate, and use them as a prescription to help deal with the emotion. The question is, do these foods actually deliver what we're seeking? Do they alter our mood?
It's true. I have a history of eating to calm myself or to help me deal with emotions I don't want to face, although I do control it much better than I used to. Over the years, so many people have told me the same thing: they start experiencing certain emotions and they start sucking down food like a baby and a pacifier. Using small portions of food for your mood every once in awhile is fine. The problem comes when this happens frequently, or if very large amounts of food are consumed which can lead to weight gain. Sometimes people feel guilty when this happens, which can create yet another emotion that urges us to eat, and a vicious cycle continues.
Many studies are examining the association between food and brain chemistry. There are a number of neurotransmitters that zip around our brains, including serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine and norepinephrine. Serotonin has a calming effect while the others tend to perk you up and increase alertness. Though all the results aren't conclusive, some associations between food and mood prove quite interesting. Some nutrients found in foods are precursors to these brain chemicals. It is possible that the foods we choose do have an effect on our emotional state.
Carbohydrates seem to increase the production of serotonin in the brain, which is a lovely opiate-like substance that delivers a calming effect and reduces anxiety. Knowing that, it's interesting to note that almost all people's go-to foods during emotional eating tend to be laden with carbs, though most also have plenty of fat and often salt, too. Dieters who severely restrict carbohydrates (Atkins, for example) report an increase in depression after the second week on such a regimen.
Low blood sugar levels are often reason enough to be cranky and irritable. If you want to feel your best, eat foods to help stabilize your blood glucose. Use lean protein, healthy fat and complex carbohydrates. Be sure to reach for smart carbs (less processed carbs) like whole grains, fruits and vegetables which take longer to digest and keep your blood sugar steadier longer. Eating a balanced breakfast is vital to getting the blood sugar levels in a normal range. Try to include a small amount of protein, whole grain carb, fruit, and some healthy fat for a great start to a happy day.
Studies are showing that omega-3 fatty acids may play a role in alleviating depression. Whether or not omega-3's will actually work to improve your mood is not yet known. Until then, reach for salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, sardines, walnuts and flaxseed...all good sources of omega-3's, and offer other wonderful health benefits, too.
People who are deficient in folate and vitamin D seem to have a higher tendency toward depression. Low vitamin D appears to lower serotonin levels. Some health care providers are encouraging patients to reach for foods rich in these micronutrients. Salmon is rich source of vitamin D, along with fortified milk, soy milk, and supplements. Folate is found in nuts, seeds, lentils, spinach, broccoli and fortified cereals.
Low selenium levels are correlated with anxiety and irritability. Rich sources of selenium include Brazil nuts, seeds, fish, shellfish, meat, poultry, eggs and grains. Magnesium may also provide a calming effect, probably by increasing serotonin production. Magnesium is found in beans, whole grains, seeds, spinach, broccoli and fish. As you look at the food sources of all of these vitamins and minerals, you'll notice that getting a good, well balanced healthy food intake everyday should offer plenty of mood enhancing action.
Dehydration can cause sluggishness and irritability, so make sure you're getting plenty of fluids. People who are well hydrated are also found to be more alert. Water is a good thing!
Small to moderate amounts of caffeine can improve alertness and produce a little extra energy, though large amounts of caffeine tend to increase anxiety and nervousness.
Eating high protein foods may result in more alertness, which is probably due primarily to its leveling effect on blood sugar level. Protein is also made up of amino acids, some of which act precursors to making dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine in the brain. If you need your brain to stay focused and alert, be sure to include small amounts of protein throughout the day.
Too much food can increase sluggishness and the feeling of sadness, perhaps along with guilt. Blood tend to flow to the digestive tract after you've eaten, and it continues to do so until most of the food is digested. This can take oxygen in the blood away from the brain during digestion, which may result in less focus and a bit more crankiness.
Chocolate does in fact raise the level of serotonin in your brain, along with a few others. Is it any wonder why so many of us have a "thing" for chocolate when we're feeling certain moods?
There seems to be some disagreement in the research when it comes to eating carbs and protein together. Some researchers think the biggest serotonin rise comes with eating pure carbs. Others point out that when protein and carbs are eaten together, one amino acid (tyrosine) heads to the brain and is converted to dopamine while the serotonin zips in response to the carbs.
As we consider what information the research has gathered so far, it's clear that eating a well balanced diet, rich in lean proteins, fish, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, and low fat dairy, actually scores really well to help improve your mood. Until further research comes in, we can keep our mood as positive as possible by choosing to eat healthy foods, eat small meals often, stay hydrated and enjoy a little coffee and chocolate.
Eat Well, Be Well!