Are you feeling stressed, irritable or just plain low? Take a moment to consider what you have - or haven’t - been eating.
Obviously, food affects your mood. Sometimes the mere sight and smell of your favourite dish is enough to jolt us out of the doldrums and renew your enthusiasm for life. But there’s more to it than just your eyes and nose. What we eat and drink has a direct effect on the brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine that in turn influence the way we think, feel and behave. Fortunately this means we have the power to improve our mood just by making the right food choices.
Foods rich in vitamin C can reduce both physical and psychological effects of stress by reducing levels of cortisol, the hormone responsible for the fight or flight response. All fruit and vegetables, but especially citrus, kiwis and peppers are good sources. Cooking and exposure to light can damage this delicate antioxidant - so eating plenty of fresh, raw produce is the most effective way to increase our levels. Lightly steaming broccoli is fine, but boiling allows nutrients to leach out into the water, which is then discarded.
Make sure you’re getting enough tryptophan. This amino acid is crucial for producing serotonin - the feel good hormone. It’s also needed to produce melatonin - the hormone that tells us its time settle down and switch off for the night. Poultry, eggs, brown rice, tofu, oats, dairy and nuts are all good sources. Tart cherries, pineapple, bananas and oranges are natural sources of melatonin, which also happens to be a powerful antioxidant.
A rainbow of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables is the best way to get a wide variety of antioxidants needed to support vascular health and protect your neurons from the damaging effects of oxidative stress. Omega 3 fatty acids, found in oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines and anchovies), nuts and seeds are crucial for keeping the brain well nourished and functioning properly and low levels are repeatedly linked with depression and low mood. If you’re vegetarian, don’t like oily fish or can’t eat nuts it’s a good idea to take a daily supplement of fish oil or omega 3 essential fatty acids.
Serotonin-enhancing drugs are popular, but they have side effects. Fortunately, there are plenty of natural and safer ways to boost our levels. Greens (spinach, kale, arugula, celery, cabbage, cauliflower), lentils, oranges and papaya are good sources of vitamin B6 and folate – needed to produce serotonin and dopamine. Low levels of both are linked to depression. Chilli peppers and cayenne help elevate mood thanks to capsaicin, a compound that sends a message to the brain to release endorphins – the body’s natural painkillers and mood enhancers. Chocolate boosts serotonin and dopamine (no surprise there) and carbohydrates increase serotonin levels by boosting our brain’s ability to use tryptophan. That’s why we tend to crave them when we’re feeling down. Opt for healthy complex carbs like whole grains and vegetables, instead of the refined, starchy carbs and junk food.
Just as there are foods that lift your mood, so are things that work the other way. White, refined, processed foods and sugars are often to blame as after the “quick high” comes the fall and with it the return of crankiness and irritability. Alcohol may have an initial relaxing effect, but in the long run a it’s a depressant that interferes with your body’s ability to produce serotonin by wreaking havoc on your blood sugar levels. Caffeine is a stimulant that has similar negative effects on your blood sugar levels.
On a final note, remember that your brain is 85% water and mood disorders are linked to dehydration – Make sure you hydrate!