Today is the start of Mental Health Awareness Week: 12th-18th May 2014
Here are my 7 healthy eating tips to help boost your mood
It’s generally accepted that how we feel can influence what we choose to eat or drink. For some this may involve food cravings or comfort eating at times of stress. For others, it may be food aversion or loss of appetite that arises as our body deals with feelings of anxiety or low mood. What is less well known in terms of real scientific evidence is how what we eat can affect our mental functioning. When we change what we eat, some people have reported improvements in many aspects of their mood:
- mood swings
- panic attacks
- premenstrual syndrome (PMS)
- concentration and memory
- behavioural disorders
- seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
This post is about how we can create a more balanced mood and feelings of well-being through focusing on certain aspects of our diet. I am not claiming the suggestions I make and the nutrients I mention will ‘cure’ mental health disorders like depression but they can be a step to improving mood and well-being. Some of the evidence is still sketchy and while a healthy diet can help recovery from mental illness, it should sit alongside other treatments recommended by your doctor.
Firstly we should ensure that our diet provides adequate amounts of energy in the form of complex carbohydrates. We also need some healthy fats, some protein, water, vitamins and minerals. Here are my tips on how to do this (vitamins and minerals will be coming in part 2!)
1. Eat regularly and NEVER skip breakfast
Fluctuations in blood sugar levels are associated with significant changes in energy and mood – they are both affected by what we eat. To stabilise blood sugars we need to eat at regular intervals; little and often can be a good way to help you do this. Some studies have shown that ‘grazing’ rather than sticking to set meal times improves both mood and concentration.
So this makes breakfast the most important meal of the day. Breakfast does exactly what it says on the tin – it Breaks an overnight Fasting period – if you don’t sleepwalk to the fridge in the middle of the night, you probably won’t have eaten since the night before. This could be at least 10hrs your body has gone without food.
To kick-start your metabolism in the morning and perk up your blood sugar levels, we need to eat breakfast. It is also well known that people who skip breakfast are more likely to make unhealthy snack and meal choices and are more likely to be overweight. So this leads me to my next tip about healthy food choices.
2. Eat plenty of whole grains
Please don’t be afraid of carbohydrates – we need these for energy and to keep our blood sugars stable – but we need to limit the refined and processed (otherwise known as simple) carbohydrates. Cut down the white bread, white rice and white pasta and go for wholemeal and whole grain varieties.
Apart from whole grains being much richer in fibre and nutrients, whole grains take that bit longer for us to digest so we get a nice steady trickle of glucose from these foods going into our blood stream. With refined carbohydrates (the white ones) they are more quickly digested so glucose surges into our blood stream. This may feel great in the short term, you may get quite a buzz but it won’t be long before we get rid of all that sugar and our energy levels crash. When our blood glucose levels plummet, we tend to feel tired, we can’t concentrate and our mood is certainly affected. Speaking from experience I am pretty evil when I’m hungry or my blood sugars are low. I get impatient, snappy and am generally not that nice to be around. My husband could vouch for me on this one and tends to give me a wide berth until I eat something!
Another thing about sugar is that when we eat too much of it (especially the white sugar we add to tea and coffee, or that found in sweets and cakes), it can lower the amount of a chemical in the brain called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). This chemical maintains the health of all our nerves in the body and when its levels are low, there appears to be an increase in depression, bipolar disorder,schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Research on this is in its early stages but this is interesting to me.
3. Eat your 5 a day
Preliminary studies have shown there is a strong day-to-day relationship between a more positive mood and higher fruit and vegetable consumption. This may in part be linked to the point above – a diet rich in fruit and veg will help stabilise your blood sugar, particularly if you split your 5 a-day into 2 servings of fruit and 3 of veg. The lower sugar content of veg will mean they don’t cause large fluctuations in your blood sugar levels plus your intake of refined or simple carbohydrates tends to be lower when we eat more fruit and veg. It may also be due to the particular vitamins and minerals found in the fruit and veg – I’ll be coming back to these another day.
4. Include regular protein in your diet
Brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters influence the way we think, feel and behave. Serotonin is one that is particularly linked to well-being and is involved in the regulation of mood, sleep and appetite (many anti-depressants act to increase serotonin levels in the brain). The levels of serotonin can be affected by what we’ve eaten as many of the building blocks required to make it come from protein in the form of amino acids. Specifically, protein provides the ‘essential’ amino acids that our body cannot make. To make serotonin in the brain we need the amino acid tryptophan, which we can get from these foods:
Lean meat: Skinless turkey, skinless chicken
Dairy: plain yoghurt, milk, eggs, cheddar, gruyere, swiss cheese, cottage cheese
Nuts: almonds, pistachios, pecan, hazelnuts, peanuts/soy nuts
Seeds: poppy, pumpkin, sesame seeds
Beans and pulses:lentils, chick peas (hummus), kidney, soya
Veg: spinach, watercress, cabbage
5. Eat oily fish
As with essential amino acids, there are also essential fatty acids that our body cannot make, so we must obtain them from our diet. This is where the healthy, or good fats come in. You may have heard of omega fats? Omega-3 fatty acids are healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids that come from plants and fish. There are 3 types of omega 3 fatty acids:
- ALA (alpha-linoleic acid)
- DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)
- EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).
ALA is found in certain vegetable oils, seeds and nuts:
- Rapeseed oil
- Walnut oil
- Flaxseed oil
EPA and DHA are found in oily fish, seafood and fish oils
It makes sense these good fats are so important for good mental health as the brain itself is 60% fat and 1/3 of all fatty acids in there are of the polyunsaturated variety. Although best known for cardiovascular benefits, new findings indicate that the influence of omega-3 fatty acids in mental health, particularly EPA, may currently be underestimated. New clinical studies have shown a strong connection between omega-3 fatty acids, or a lack thereof, and severe depression. There have been a number of population studies that have shown a higher consumption of fish equals lower rates of depression with a higher mental health status. It also appears that higher fish consumption is correlated with a lower risk of postnatal depression and SAD.
A healthy diet should include at least two portions of fish a week, including one of oily fish. Most of us aren’t eating this much so this is an area of our diet that should get more attention.
6. Keep hydrated
Whilst we know that dehydration can affect exercise performance and may have medical complications, we often underestimate the importance of drinking enough fluids. Studies have shown that even mild dehydration can influence our mood, energy levels and the ability to think clearly. The problem is that we rely on thirst as an indicator for when we need to drink — a response that actually is too late to avoid many of the negative effects of dehydration. Our thirst sensation doesn’t really appear until we are 1-2% dehydrated. By then dehydration is already setting in and starting to impact how our mind and body perform.
Being just 1% dehydrated can occur during the course of our ordinary daily activities and surprisingly, women seem to be more susceptible than men. A study showed men felt tired, tense and anxious when mildly dehydrated, but negative changes in mood and symptoms were substantially greater in females than in males.
So make sure you drink around 2L of fluid a day. It doesn’t have to be just water – all drinks are OK, just watch your sugar and caffeine intake. You can check your hydration status simply by looking the color of your pee. Urine should be a very pale yellow colour. If it’s dark yellow or tan in color, it means you are not drinking enough.
7. Cut down on Caffeine
Caffeine is probably the most widely used behaviour-modifying drug in the world. It can help us feel alert and improve our concentration. It can improve reaction speed and keep you going when you need to. But the effects of too much caffeine can be much the same as those of anxiety. It is a stimulant that affects the brain and central nervous system.
Caffeine can be found in:
- Drinks such as coffee, tea, fizzy drinks like Coke, Pepsi or Irn-Bru. Diet versions also have high levels.
- Some pain killers, some cold remedies and headache tablets.
- Energy tablets and drinks like Pro-Plus and Red Bull.
- Chocolate contains caffeine though at quite a low level.
We often choose to drink it if we are feeling tired and irritable, because it can give us a boost and help us to concentrate. Having said this, having a cup of coffee or tea also has a lot of positive psychological associations. We meet a friend for ‘coffee and a chat’ or give ourselves a break by sitting down with a cup of tea, and these things are very important. If you think caffeine does play a part in your stress, you should get your daily intake down as much as you can.
Coming later this week will be a post about vitamins and minerals and how we can increase our intake to help with anxiety, depression and poor sleep………….
I really welcome your thoughts about good or bad mood foods 🙂