Many of us underestimate the impact of what we eat on our health, energy levels, motivation and mood. Think about it: how often do you choose to eat something ‘nice’ to make you feel better? What is it about sweets, crisps and chocolates that are so comforting? There is actually some science behind this, as sugar and fat cause the brain to release endorphins that deliver pleasure signals all over the body. However, despite these apparent short-term benefits, chocolate isn’t necessarily the answer to improving our overall mood! When it comes to managing anxiety, there are four factors to look at: sleep, diet, hydration and exercise. No one factor will improve your mood, but these components can work in synergy to help us feel calmer and feel good.
Serotonin, often nicknamed the ‘happy hormone’, is a chemical in the brain that can affect mood. The majority of serotonin in the body is made in the gut and a smaller amount is made in the brain. Eating foods that contain a protein known as tryptophan can help the body to produce more serotonin. Foods that contain this protein, tryptophan, include meat, fish, poultry, eggs, beans, nuts and seeds. Tryptophan needs carbohydrates to be able to travel to the brain to make serotonin. So, it is a good idea to include these tryptophan-rich foods alongside carbohydrates!
So, with all that science out of the way, what foods should we eat? Aim to include some complex carbohydrates in each meal. Whole grains are digested slowly by the body, which means that they release energy gradually. Healthful snacks, such as nuts and seeds or fruit can provide energy between meals. Aiming to eat every 3-4 hours will ensure a steady supply of energy.
Drinking plenty of fluids during the day is critical for energy levels. Even mild dehydration can affect your mood, so make sure that you drink plenty of water. The general guidelines are to include 1.5 to 2 litres a day, it is best to hydrate yourself between mealtimes. And don’t forget that you can hydrate your body by eating water too! Many fruits and vegetables have high water content and can help to keep you hydrated. Hydration can also help with digestion, and a healthy gut is essential for the production of serotonin. Including foods that naturally contain both pro-biotics and pre-biotics will help maintain a healthy gut. The easiest way to do this is to include some fermented foods e.g. yogurts, kefir & kimchi and aim for 30 or more plant-based foods in your diet each week to help keep your gut and brain healthy.
The B vitamins are often associated with mood. In particular, Thiamin (B1), Niacin (B3) and Cobalamin (B12) are considered essential to mental and emotional well-being and must be obtained through the diet. Meat, fish, eggs, dairy and fortified food such as wholegrain cereals are great sources of these vitamins. However, these vitamins are highly sensitive and can be destroyed by alcohol, refined sugars, nicotine and caffeine—perhaps it is no surprise that many people in Ireland may be low in these!
By focusing on your overall diet, eating for good gut health and eating at regular intervals you can help your day-to-day mood. Feeling positive is often about balance. Diet, exercise, sleep, and a positive outlook are all key elements to improving mood. It is important to remember, however, that diet is not a substitute for treatment. Lifestyle changes, such as improving sleep habits, increasing social support, using stress-reduction techniques and getting regular exercise also may help.