By Amanda Whitford
Spring is here! It’s still a little cold, but I love the feeling that summer is just around the corner. If the end of winter isn’t enough to lift your mood, then read on to find out the ways that your diet can help.
The association between food and mood has been the topic of considerable research over the years, and a lot of evidence points to a relationship between the two. Not only can eating the right foods give you more energy and help your body to be healthy, it looks like it can make you happy too!
This also means that the wrong foods can negatively affect your mood. Although in the short term comfort foods such as chocolate and cake may make us feel happier, they are usually followed by feelings of guilt, a drop in blood sugar associated with tiredness, and a tendency to want to eat more to make it better again.
Eating a balanced whole food diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables is one of the best things you can do to improve your mood and your energy levels. In addition to this, there are specific foods shown to successfully improve mood that won’t give you the guilts and the tiredness afterwards.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter found mostly in our gut and our brain. It is involved in several important processes including in the regulation of mood, sleep, appetite, and the digestion of foods. Low levels of Serotonin have been linked to depression and many anti-depressants work by increasing the amount of serotonin available in the brain by stopping its reabsorption. The body makes Serotonin using an amino acid called Tryptophan as a precursor, which can be found in many foods in our diet. Eating plenty of Tryptophan containing foods will ensure your body has the precursors it needs to make adequate Serotonin.
Good sources of Tryptophan include:
Cashew nuts, pumpkin seeds-cheese (mozzarella, parmesan), seaweed (nori, kelp), spirulina, spinach, watercress, parsley, mung beans, mushrooms, asparagus and chicken.
Other foods such as bananas provide serotonin directly, but it can’t actually cross the blood brain barrier that keeps substances out of our central nervous system, so to increase brain serotonin levels, getting more Tryptophan is your best tool.
That’s not to say that bananas don’t have a role in happiness – they do! Bananas are a good source of Vitamin B6 which is needed for the synthesis of several neurotransmitters including Serotonin. This vitamin plays an essential role in the conversion of tryptophan to serotonin. This means that along with plenty of Tryptophan, we need to make sure we get enough Vitamin B6 from our diets. The B vitamins are water soluble which means they aren’t stored in our body, so when we consume vitamin B rich foods our body takes what it needs and the rest is excreted. Frequent intake of B vitamins is needed to ensure that we have enough for optimal function.
Other foods that can help boost Vitamin B6 include:
Tuna, salmon, chicken, liver, kumara, potato, sunflower seeds, chickpeas, avocado and spinach.
Omega 3 fatty acids
These are polyunsaturated fatty acids that our bodies need but cannot synthesise, thus, we must get them from the diet. Omega 3s play an important role in brain development and health, and deficiencies have been linked to both depression and anxiety. Oily fish such as sardines, salmon and tuna are some of these best sources of these fatty acids. They are also found in flaxseeds, hemp seeds and their oils, along with canola oil.
Omega 3s compete with Omega 6 fatty acids for the enzymes that convert them into their beneficial forms, so the ratio of these is another important consideration. A typical Western diet has too much Omega 6 and not enough Omega 3. This imbalance has also been linked to several health problems including cardiovascular disease and inflammation. While it’s important to eat some Omega 6 rich foods, these should be enjoyed in moderation. Omega 6 food sources include sunflower and soybean oils, walnuts, Brazil, nuts, sesame seeds.
Polyphenols are amazing little compounds, found naturally in plant food sources, with biological activity in our bodies beneficial to our health. Polyphenols are great antioxidants that help to prevent the cellular damage from reactive oxygen species (ROS) that contributes to aging and disease. There are also specific polyphenolic compounds that have been shown to have mood lifting effects.
Curcumin- this is what gives turmeric its yellow colour, and it can also be found in mustard. It has a range of beneficial functions: antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti- viral, anti-carcinogenic. It has also been shown to benefit the health of neurons in our brain preventing degeneration and to reduce the symptoms of depression. Add turmeric to salad dressings, soups, curries, even bliss balls.
Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) – this is a polyphenol found in green tea that also has high antioxidant activity, and can alleviate stress and symptoms of depression. Consuming 2-3 cups of green tea per day will give you plenty of EGCG. Consider switching some of your coffees or black teas for green teas.
Try adding some or all of these mood foods into your diet for a natural happiness boost. With more sun on the way, it’s also a good idea to try and get 20-30 minutes of sun exposure each day, as our bodies need sunlight to make Vitamin D, which is also a mood promoting nutrient (early morning or late afternoon is best, when UV levels are lower). Take a short walk at the same time and you’ll release exercise-induced endorphins and reap the reward of their mood elevation abilities. It’s time to shake off the winter blues and prepare for a happy and healthy summer.
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