How Your Diet Affects Your Mood

From Dr. Libby Weaver

Is your food negatively impacting your mood?

For many years, the link between mood and nutrition has been debated. From the common sense corner, we have always known the food we eat affects us – you only have to recall a child’s birthday party to see just how powerfully the food we eat can impact our mood and behaviour. What we eat literally becomes part of us; the amino acids we ingest help to form the proteins that become part of our immune system, our muscles and so on. However, many of us have become disconnected from this relationship – we can be left thinking it’s ‘normal’ to feel terrible at 3pm, snap before lunch or to constantly feel bloated after eating. Our relationship with food is complex and often has a strong emotional component. Take for example a stressful day – we’re generally drawn to chocolate, alcohol, or takeaways, not a health promoting bowl of broccoli. If we’re feeling tired and sluggish, we tend to reach for caffeine and sugary foods – anything that will give us a quick surge of energy. Let’s explore how our food choices can impact our mood and how we can support our mood through the power of nourishing food.

The gut-brain connection

Serotonin is a hormone (neurotransmitter) that leads us to feel happy, calm and content. It is important to remember that about eighty percent of the serotonin in the body is made in the gut, so supporting good gut health can play a role in how we feel each day. When we think of our mood, we tend to think of it being related to our brain, yet many neurotransmitters are actually made in the gut.

Fermented foods such as sauerkraut typically contain microbes that are beneficial to the human digestive system and hence can enhance our mood. You can buy them or make your own. 

Dark chocolate is a good source of tryptophan, an amino acid that supports the production of serotonin. Chocolate consumption also drives the brain to produce another chemical called anandamide, which has been shown to temporarily block feelings of pain and depression. Dopamine is also produced when we eat chocolate, and this can have a mood lifting effect on many people. However, for those with already elevated dopamine levels, excessive amounts of chocolate can lead to tension and aggression. So, like with all things related to mood, there is no one size fits all; some find chocolate enhances their mood, for others it gives them a headache and/or fires them up.

Bananas – particularly ripe bananas – can help to regulate dopamine (a feel good factor) as they contain a high concentration of tyrosine, an amino acid that helps generate dopamine in the brain. Bananas are also rich in B group vitamins, including vitamin B6, as well as magnesium, both essential for relaxation and a calm nervous system. Other food sources of tyrosine include almonds, eggs and meats.

Looking after your blood glucose

Well-regulated blood-glucose levels are critical to an even mood. That means including proteins, fats and/or fiber with meals and snacks to ensure glucose from sugars and starches is released slowly into the blood. Most importantly though, don’t rely on fats, proteins and fibre to do this – don’t over-consume sugars and starches in the first place.

EPA and DHA, the essential omega 3 fats found in oily fish, flax seeds, walnuts and pecans, have been shown to reduce anxiety and have a positive impact on many mood parameters. 

It’s not just what you eat…what you drink is also important!

Alcohol is a depressant. That is its mechanism of action. After the first few sips you get a hit of dopamine – a mood enhancer – but after not too long, the depressive action of alcohol kicks in. So if someone has depression or has a tendency to experience a flat mood, alcohol is not their friend. Before anything else is trialled to assist the person to feel better, a period of time without alcohol may mean nothing else is necessary. It can be that powerful. The trouble is, low mood and alcohol can form a vicious cycle, as many people reach for a drink hoping to ease their worries. Yet if someone is drinking every day, it usually ends up feeding the very feelings they are seeking to avoid. So if you drink alcohol, notice if you feel worse the next day and moderate your intake appropriately.

Excessive amounts of caffeine from any source – predominantly coffee, soft drinks and energy drinks these days – lead the body to make adrenaline, one of our stress hormones. Adrenaline communicates to every cell in your body that your life is in danger as historically, that was the only time we made it.

For too many people now, excessive amounts of adrenaline drive them to experience great highs and deep lows in their mood and energy, mainly due to the impact of adrenaline on blood glucose. Unfortunately, the highs don’t always bring happiness for some people. It can bring on aggression, frustration and overreacting to minor occurrences.

Living on foods that contain too many refined sugars can also negatively impact our mood through a similar mechanism. Yet, for some people, a small amount of caffeine each day has been shown to enhance their mood. We need to notice how we – as individuals – respond.

What is added to our food, can also effect our mood

There are also concerns about foods that contain preservatives. These are added to many processed foods to extend their shelf life by inhibiting bacterial growth. Given that each adult has 3-5 kilograms of bacteria living in their large intestine and the known impact they have on the immune system, mood and brain chemistry, I have concerns about the influence the preservatives in foods may be having on gut bacteria. To paraphrase Michael Pollan, that means eating real food (whole foods), not too much, and mostly plants. Words to live by.

Remember how you eat, drink, move, think, breathe, believe and perceive all impact how you show up each day. Your biochemistry, the nutrients you consume, as well as your beliefs impact whether you experience energy or not. We must give our body what it needs to create the conditions inside of us that allow us to feel happy, healthy and energized.

For more from Dr. Libby see this article on how to be calm. Also, see how foods affect your ability to focus