Food and Mood – is it all in your Mind?

Tuesday, May 28, 2019 - 11:30

Close your eyes and imagine that you are sitting in front of your favourite dessert; the thought of it may bring a smile to your face or even lift your spirits if you had a bad day.


Can certain foods really affect your mood? Pop culture promotes eating ice cream after a break-up, or chocolate for Pre-Menstrual Syndrome (PMS) symptoms but, are sugary foods the best to improve your state of mind? Or, is it the lack of food that brings on low moods? The lack of specific nutrients that affect how our brain functions may just be behind that ‘hangry’ (the simultaneous feeling of hungry and angry) feeling. Let’s explore how food affects your mood and conversely, how your mood affects what foods you choose to eat.


It all starts in the brain…


Our brains govern our heartbeat, hormones, movements and thoughts and it works best when it gets the right fuel. It is important to feed our brains with the right carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that you get from a whole-foods balanced diet. These nutrients nourish the brain cells and affect every function in the body including mood. In fact, studies have shown that diets high in processed sugary foods are harmful to the brain and can lead to low moods and worsen symptoms of depression.


Often, the types of food that we reach for when we are feeling down or stressed are our ‘comfort’ foods. This is part of our body’s survival response as it seeks to fuel up for our fight-flight-freeze response to the stress trigger. When we eat these usually sweet or refined carbohydrate foods, we release serotonin, a chemical linked to the regulation of our mood, sleep, sexual drive, memory and appetite.  This happy hormone boosts our mood, but only temporarily, which is why it may cause us to crave more sugar-laden foods.


Your digestive tract is important also


95% of the body’s serotonin is produced in the gut and is influenced by the balance of the healthy bacteria or your gut microbiome.  In fact, the gut has been dubbed ‘the second brain’ as it influences our mood. In addition, many messages travel from the digestive tract to the brain and not the other way around as we would expect. That’s why it’s good to trust your ‘gut-feeling’, even if it doesn’t make logical sense to your brain.


What to eat for a positive mood

There is no evidence to support that any specific foods boost your mood, but eating a balanced whole-foods diet (like the Mediterranean diet) has been linked to improvements in those with mental health issues. Conversely, the Standard American Diet (SAD) which is high in processed, fatty, sweet and salty foods can contribute to low moods and symptoms of depression and anxiety.


Some important components of your diet to keep in mind:


  • Healthy Fats from foods such as nuts, seeds, avocado, extra-virgin olive oil and salmon are essential for our brain function.  


  • Fermented Foods such as sauerkraut, yoghurt and kefir are important to feed the healthy bacteria in your digestive tract. This is important for the digestion and assimilation of nutrients and also help reduce sugar and carbohydrate cravings.


  • Fruits and Vegetables are your main source of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and phytonutrients in your diet. Your brain will not function effectively if your diet is lacking in any key nutrients.  In addition, the fibre naturally present in fruits and vegetables help to support a healthy microbiome.


  • Whole Grains, Provisions and Legumes fuel our brain by providing glucose. These are complex carbohydrates, however, they will not lead to blood sugar swings (which can also impact mood) and provide fibre to support healthy elimination and food for the healthy gut bacteria.


  • Water is required for all of the brain’s activities, from the transportation of nutrients to the brain to the production of neurotransmitters and hormones.  Our brain is 85% water and simply does not function effectively if we are not adequately hydrated.


Remember our brain is part of the body, so our mental health and our physical health go hand-in-hand. When we have good mental health, we are more likely to take the steps to take care of our physical health such as get adequate sleep, exercise and eat healthy foods. It is important to remember that it’s not just about the nutrients in your food but also finding non-food ways to manage stress and difficult emotions, getting adequate sleep, connecting with your social network, engaging in physical activity and having fun.