The connection between food and mood has long been established in science but it is one that is easily forgotten in fitness circles, eating for results and performance generally means in the gym or for a sport, rather than better moods or brain function. This should not be the case and with all clients I work with I choose to take a more holistic approach, as inevitably your mood will affect your performance in your job, at the gym and in your personal life so if you can improve that through food other areas will improve too. Mind which is the leading charity for mental health takes the issue of food and mood very seriously, and although seeking the assistance from your GP should you feel things are getting too much, assessing your diet and making changes can have a very positive effect on your mind. There have been reports of improvements in mood swings, depression, anxiety, concentration, memory, fatigue, behavioural disorders and many others from making changes to what we eat. It is an area, which holds as much importance for many people as fuelling their workout or getting through the day.
So how does food affect your mood?
Certain foods are known to have positive (vegetables, oil-rich fish and fruits) or negative (alcohol, sugars and caffeine) effects on your mood. Have you ever noticed that if you go too long without food you become irritable, snappy, weak, fuzzy headed and possibly even short tempered? Now think about the foods you crave at this point, usually it will be Carbohydrates in the form of bread, sweets, pasta etc., rarely in this state will you crave a steak and some green beans. This is because Glucose the form of energy derived from Carbohydrates is what fuels the brain through glucose in the bloodstream which is called upon by neurons as they are unable to store glucose. This is also another reason to control your blood sugar through eating complex carbohydrates; it will give your body and brain a constant flow of blood glucose.
There’s much more to food and mood than just the brain being powered. Neurons in the brain need glucose to function, these neurons are basically data transfers and are responsible for releasing chemicals called neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and acetylcholine, these all influence the way we think, feel and behave. Food and more specifically the nutrients found in it are precursors to these neurotransmitters, the more nutrients the more of certain neurotransmitters are released. Seems simple enough, however it’s not, as food is made up of many different nutrients (macro and micro) which will all interact and impact the release of neurotransmitters.
Good mood foods
The foods you should be aiming to include in your diet all have benefits for the gym and you will see them in many a healthy diet so it may not be a case of overhauling your diet but merely eating more of them.
Protein – Protein is broken down in to Amino Acids, one of which, tyrosine increases the production of dopamine, noradrenaline and adrenaline all of which are known for their ability to increase levels of alertness and energy.
Carbohydrates – as previously mentioned Carbohydrates are broken down in to blood glucose, which fuels the brain. Carbohydrates also trigger the release of insulin in to the blood stream, which clears the bloodstream of amino acids, apart from Tryptophan. Tryptophan is an interesting one as it is usually crowded out by other Amino’s in it’s attempt to cross the blood brain barrier, with competing amino’s removed however it is able to do so and it is at this point it is converted to serotonin which regulates mood, appetite and sleep. Low carb dieters have reported feeling down around two weeks in to their diet; it is usually at this point their serotonin levels have dropped due to lowering Carbohydrates.
EFA’s (Essential Fatty Acids) – in particular omega-3, the type found in oil rich fish such as Salmon and Mackerel as well as being found in linseeds (flax) and hemp seeds and their oils. Omega-3 is rich in EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and the brain and nerve cells depend on fat as the nervous system is made mostly of fat. Therefore the brain depends on omega-3, give it enough and it will function better, starve it and it wont perform as well, resulting in you feeling sluggish and mentally fatigued which will have obvious consequences on your mood.
Selenium – Research has shown that some individuals lacking in selenium can irritable, anxious, depressed and hostile. Correcting these deficiencies has shown to normalize the moods of a person, although getting more does not elevate it. Selenium is important as it plays a part in brain function as well as the functioning of the thyroid. Foods rich in selenium include Brazil nuts, shellfish, fish, oats and sunflower seeds.
Folic acid – deficiencies in this nutrient causes serotonin levels in the brain to decrease and low levels have been linked to depression in clinical studies. Studies have found psychiatric patients with depression generally have higher rates of folic acid deficiency than the general public. Foods high in folic acid include dark leafy greens such as spinach, asparagus, citrus fruits, avocado and seeds and nuts.
Choline – this is a B complex vitamin that is concentrated in foods high in cholesterol (read last months Nutritional Myths article for the low down on Cholesterol in the diet). Foods such as eggs, liver, salmon and cod all have an abundance of Choline which when lacking can cause impairment of memory and lacking of concentration. This is due to Choline being the precursor to the brain neurotransmitter, acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is linked to memory and low levels have been linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
What you will notice is that all the foods, which have a positive effect on mood, are actually very healthy and nutritionally dense, these are the reasons they are known as healthy foods. You will also notice that sugars are omitted, this is because of the instant hit they give which leads to spikes in insulin followed by a crash, the results of which you will generally feel both physically and mentally. Look to include the foods mentioned over convenience foods and your craving for these will lower as your blood sugars will be ore stable and your mood normalized or even improved, this all works towards creating a positive mind-set, something which when couple with training can give you an improved feeling of well being. Food does affect mood, make sure you’re eating the right foods to put you in a good mood.
For more information of Food and Mood you may want to check out the charity organisation Mind. www.mind.org.uk.