Food therapy: Eating right to lift your mood
Everybody loves the sunshine
How do you feel? This question can be interpreted in one than one way. "How do you feel?" inspires a description of our current emotional status while "How do you feel?" begs a more scientific response. Our brain and body collaborates to create feelings. Our mind perceives and interprets our experiences, events, and surroundings. Using this information, our bodies then produce the chemicals and hormones that generate a full range of emotions.
We now understand that certain nutrients participate in — and are essential to — these biochemical processes. An insufficient or fluctuating supply can complicate mood regulation. Some foods can even take the reigns and steer our feelings in positive or negative directions.
Life can be tough, especially when you're battling a bad day or enduring a challenging social, familial, or professional season. Nothing can replace counseling and connecting with loved ones, but your diet should not be overlooked. Compare your current eating habits to the nutrition tips listed below. A few simple mealtime modifications may augment your other efforts, pull you out of the blues, and help you feel better — perhaps your best yet.
WHAT TO GRAB
Yes, you read that correctly. Carbs can keep you feeling good. Going carb-free can cause moods to plummet. How so? Our bodies use carbohydrates for the ongoing production of serotonin, the hormone that creates an underlying sense of calm. Without it, depression sets in. But there's a catch. You have to choose the correct kinds of carbs. Cookies, ice cream, desserts, and noodles might be favourite comfort foods, but their pleasurable effects are short-lived and limited to the palate (as frequent consumption can led to poor weight and blood sugar control). The wisest choices are whole, unprocessed, fiber-rich carbohydrates — those that come straight from the earth and spend little time with machines and chemicals, such as rolled oats, brown rice, whole wheat breads and pastas, quinoa, lentils, beans, fresh fruits and vegetables. These provide a steady and continuous stream of carbohydrate for serotonin production and also promote improved gut heath, which is also understood to positively impact moods.
Proteins are also a priority, and two types stand out amongst the group. Foods that contain the amino acid tyrosine can assist your system in secreting dopamine, the hormone that leaves you feeling both motivated and satisfied. Which are these? Nuts (especially almonds and Brazil nuts), beef and poultry, fish, eggs, beets, sprouts, and fruits such as banana, avocado, berries and watermelon. Another amino acid that shouldn't go missing is tryptophan. This mini-protein is a serotonin building block found in turkey and chicken, fish, cottage cheese, eggs, nuts and beans. To help your body use it most effectively, consume tryptophan-rich foods with small amounts of carbohydrate. Consuming it with small amounts of quality carbohydrates helps the body use tryptophan (like those above) most effectively.
Fats, in particular the essential fatty acid decosahexanoic acid (DHA), can help to lift your mood. DHA double-times between the endocrine and central nervous systems, aiding in hormone production and lubricating nerves brain and body-wide. How to get it? Consume cold-water fish such as tuna, mackerel, salmon, cod, and sardines. Eggs and fortified dairy can help vegetarians while vegans can look to flax seeds, chia seeds, almonds, and walnuts.
Oxycotin, a.k.a the 'cuddle hormone' is released when we feel bonded, trusted, and nurtured. Increases in estrogen can stimulate the production of oxycotin, as well. It's likely not advisable to rely on supplemental estrogen medication for purposes such as these. But fortunately, certain nature-made plant chemicals called phytoestrogens resemble and behave like estrogen in the body, as their name suggests. Eating foods rich in these — like apples, edamame beans, tomato, garlic, ginger, and oregano — may be the next best thing. Another trick: body levels of oxytocin rise when touched, so collect hugs, dance with a partner, and make a massage appointment, too.
Looking for a mood lift, you may need to turn up the heat in your favorite recipes. Endorphins, the same hormones that give us the euphoria-like high with exercise and a good belly laugh, are secreted when we eat spicy foods. These compounds are intended to help us rise above pain, stress, and panic. So when our tongues get a temperature shock from hot chili peppers, we secrete modest amounts. Rather pass on the jalapenos? Acupuncture offers similar effects. While minute and unnoticeable to the individual, tiny superficial nerves in the skin sense the light pressure of the needles respond in kind.
WHAT TO SKIP
As mentioned, carbs count. However, the more refined, the less helpful they're likely to be. While flour-based products — such as white pastas and breads, pastries, crackers, biscuits — and white rice are void of fiber, they are digested and absorbed quickly. They then raise blood sugar levels sharply, but briefly. Sugary foods have similar, if not more pronounced, effects. This provides a very temporary serotonin boost, followed by an equally sharp decline. Avoid 'whites' and opt for whole, fiber-rich carbs. You'll enjoy happier mood maintenance — rather than mood swings.
When reducing your sugar, it's tempting to reach for artificial substitutes. Sadly, the chemicals in these synthetic sweeteners satisfy taste cravings but oppose any overall feel-better agenda. Aspartame, specifically, blocks serotonins in the body, diminishing their desirably effects and draining positivity. Instead consider a small serving of fresh fruit to satisfy your sweet tooth and your body.
Alcohol is often associated with social time and celebration. They don't call it 'happy hour' for nothing. Unfortunately, cocktail over-consumption can be counterproductive for mood management. Some studies suggest that the 'buzz' or feeling of lightness from a first drink is due to a quick endorphin kick. But sadly, as the number of beverages increases, this takes a downturn. Alcohol's 'depressant' reputation — and a reason for our next-day hangover — is due to its more predominant and enduring serotonin-inhibiting properties.
Ah, the beloved cuppa-joe. When desperately sleep deprived, the local coffee shop barista may as well be your best friend. A modest dose of caffeine can provide a harmless perk, but too many can cause an emotional U-turn from northbound to southbound. As a biochemical stimulant, caffeine pressures and fatigues the glands that produce and regulate hormones. Caffeine also works against serotonin. This can lead to irritability, nervousness, and even sleep difficulties. So keep your coffee-breaks infrequent and keep your extra espresso shots to a minimum. You'll forgo the short-term fix but enjoy a lasting mood solution.
About Eve Persak, nutritionist at COMO Shambhala
Eve is a Registered Dietitian (RD) with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She is one of 3,500 medical professionals globally to hold Certified Nutrition Support Clinician (CSNC) credentials with the American Society of Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition. Eve's expertise is rooted in science-based knowledge and provides comprehensive anthropometric and biochemical nutritional assessments, personalised therapeutic dietary recommendations, and guidance with meal planning and preparation. With COMO Hotels and Resorts, Eve is the Nutrition Editor and Consultant of COMO Shambhala's newly published cookbook, The Pleasures of Eating Well: Nourishing Favourites from the COMO Shambhala Kitchen. She also serves as Nutrition Advisor to Club21's SuperNature grocery store and leads The Home Kitchen Edit, a bespoke service by COMO Shambhala Urban Escape Singapore that sees Eve making home visits to help clients calibrate their pantry and draw up healthful meal plans.