You are what you eat. No one would deny it. Eat a lot of doughnuts and you’ll start to look like one. But what about the subtle affects that food has on our mood, brain chemistry and emotional wellbeing? In this article I’ll give guidance on the best foods for a positive life and the ones to cut out! As a nutritional consultant I’ve seen countless times how making a few simple changes can have a big impact.
Firstly, and this may seem obvious but it needs repeating, our body and brain need sufficient protein, fat, carbohydrate, enzymes, vitamins and minerals to thrive. So this is the most important place to start – boost yourself with the good stuff and you’ll feel great. If you’re deficient – you’ll feel less than great, maybe depressed and sick. Increasing raw, plant-based dense nutrient foods is a way to kick-start radiant physical and mental health. That’s why I start everyday with a super green smoothie (see recipe).
When we look at the average diet is it any wonder people are struggling with health problems. Processed, refined food, GMO, grown with chemicals in mineral-depleted soil, shipped across the world with artificial preservatives, additives, colours and flavour “enhancers” has left our diet high in salt, sugar, bad fats and low in essential minerals, vitamins and enzymes.
Are there links between the rise in mental health issues such as depression, ADHD, autism, anxiety and the modern diet? According to leading experts this is certainly the case.
The second key to food and mood comes from research that indicates restoring gut health is critical to improving mental wellbeing. Dr Natasha Campbell-McBride is a pioneer in this field. She describes how the gut is the “second brain” as it has over 100 million neurons that communicate extensively with the brain. Imbalances in gut bacteria leads to food being broken down incorrectly leading to deficiencies in key vitamins and minerals. These imbalances can also damage the gut lining causing toxins from food to leak into the blood, poisoning the brain. So it’s not really “we are what we eat,” but “we are what we absorb.”
Fortunately, we can do something to redress this. Regularly consuming probiotics helps restore good gut bacteria (this can be in supplement form, or from foods such as sauerkraut, miso, apple cider vinegar, kombucha or kefir). Avoid or reduce foods that harm the gut lining such as refined sugar, gluten and processed foods and add tumeric and black pepper to your diet as they both strengthen and repair the gut lining.
In a study by Dr Egger on hyperactive youths, many of the children had allergies to artificial colours and preservatives, wheat, dairy and sugar. When these foods were removed from their diet not only did their behavior improve but also other symptoms such as skin rashes, headaches, stomach pains, constipation, asthma, eczema and mouth ulcers disappeared. Dr Campbell-McBride has also found that removing problem foods that damage gut health such as gluten, sugar and dairy benefits people with problems from autism to ADHD. Once our gut is working effectively we are able to absorb nutrients properly and heal ourselves.
Here are some of the key foods to help to boost mood
Essential Fatty Acids. As the name suggests essential fats are crucial to all cellular functions and cannot be produced by the body so we need to consume them regularly from food. Ideally we should have twice the amount of omega 3 (found in hemp seeds, flax, fish oils, marine phytoplankton, avocado) as omega 6 (sunflower oil, olive oil, walnuts) for optimum cell function. This ratio is inversed in the modern diet, and most people are seriously deficient in these essential fats. We need to correct this for our body and brain to thrive either by supplements or the right foods.
B Vitamins. All vitamins are essential (hence the name vital – mineral) but the B vitamins have a particular importance in maintaining good mental health. Deficiencies in B vitamins can cause sleep problems, stress and even schizophrenia. Make sure you are boosting yourself with sunflower and pumpkin seeds, bananas, and if you eat meat – organic poultry, liver and wild salmon. It might be worth supplementing with a good vitamin B complex.
Tryptophan is an amino acid that affects the brain’s production of serotonin, a chemical thought to promote sound sleep and to stabilize mood. Seeds, nuts and seaweeds have the highest amount of tryptophan, but it can be found in all high protein foods such as meat. Some people are currently following the paleo diet – having large amounts of meat, some vegetables but avoiding grains. One word on meat – if you are going to eat it I strongly recommend buying organic. Meat containing residues of antibiotics, growth hormones and an accumulation of toxins is clearly not good for you. This applies to non-organic dairy products as well. Animals slaughtered in a fearful state have adrenaline in their blood, which can also be unbalancing to those that eat it.
Anandamide is called the “bliss chemical” and is one of the 400 components found in chocolate (or cacao). This is truly one of the best foods to eat raw as heating it over 40˚ C destroys many of its beneficial qualities. Cacao is also high in magnesium, an essential mineral for brain health in which many people are deficient. Magnesium is negated by dairy – so avoid milk chocolate. Cacao is also high in phenylethylamine a highly concentrated neurotransmitter in the brain’s emotional centre that increases motivation and physical drive. (see my Raw Chocolate Brownie recipe)
Good Water is so important. We are made up of 70% water so keep hydrated! Dehydration leads to poor concentration, irritability and reduced mental function.
Gingko Biloba is one of the oldest plants on earth and has a long use in herbalism for increasing memory and longevity as it improves oxygen to the brain.
Saffron is the most expensive spice on earth, more valuable per gram than gold. This is not just because of its use as a dye and flavouring. Research shows the incredible medicinal value of this plant in increasing brain function, cell integrity and repairing the myelin sheath. Its potential in treating diseases such as MS, Alzheimer’s and dementia is profound.
Lowering our mood
I’ve already mentioned how gluten can damage the gut lining. It glues up our system causing inflammation and blocking messages to the brain. Refined foods and simple carbohydrates such as white bread, pasta, cookies, cakes and sweets can reduce serotonin levels and negatively affect not only our mood but also our sleep.
In recent studies there has been a direct correlation between high (processed) fat and high sugar diets affecting motivation, mood and memory. These foods strip nutrients from the body, lower serotonin levels and lead to weaker gut flora. It is well known that refined sugar is quickly absorbed into the blood stream leading to an initial high followed by a slump in energy levels. Replace refined sugar with fruits, coconut sugar, honey or other natural sweeteners like xylitol (but watch out for artificial sweeteners like aspartame – a neuro-toxin).
Allergies and intolerances to foods can lead to hormonal and chemical levels in the body being upset resulting in a large range of symptoms. These can range from tiredness, irritability, nervousness, anxiety, depression, and hyperactivity. Find the right foods to help you thrive.
Caffeine is a toxin; it reduces our hydration levels and can lead to feelings of anxiety, increased blood pressure and sleep problems when over-consumed.
Crash diets can have a very negative impact on the mood – you may initially feel great at losing some weight but this can often just be water. This sudden change in the body’s intake of energy acts as a signal to your metabolism to slow down to match the intake. A lower metabolism has been linked and lowing of mood and depression. One of the best ways to lose weight is to eat clean, unrefined foods high in nutrients. Try smoothies and juices, salads and whole foods with exercise, yoga and positive visualizations and affirmations.
Finally, I’d like to talk about getting a good night’s sleep as if we are feeling tired our mood will generally suffer. Sleep problems have been on the rise due to lack of nutrients in the body and excess stimulation before bed from TV’s, Wi-Fi and mobile phones.
So what can we do to help aid a deep, restful sleep? As mentioned B vitamins are important for good sleep. I like to have a calming herbal tea before bed – chamomile, elderflower and valerian is one of my favourites. I turn off my phone and computer a good half an hour before bed and ensure it stays switched off and away from me. I practice gentle stretching and meditation allowing my body and mind a chance to switch off and fully relax.
In conclusion, food can seriously affect your mood. On my website I have loads of great recipes and tips and offer one-to-one consultations and group workshops to show how delicious food can be your medicine for body and mind.
Take care. Juliette Bryant