To think that food has no role to play in your mood is a complete myth. On the contrary, there is a direct link between what you eat and how you feel. Eating a poor diet causes a cascade of effects that damage your mood. Actually, people with depression often make food choices that end up contributing to feeling more depressed. I'm sure we've all experienced first-hand how a bad mood can trigger food cravings, cause us to overeat, or even kill our appetite all together. What some people do not know is that the opposite also holds true. The food you choose to eat can make or break your mood.
Studies have compared "traditional" diets (like that of the Mediterranean or Japanese diets) to a "western" diet and have shown that the risk for depression is 25-35% lower in those who eat a "traditional" diet. Traditional diets, like the Rustic Diet, is high in real food (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, fish, etc) and void of processed foods and added sugar.
Let's take a closer look at the specific foods that have been shown to improve mental health and help turn that frown upside down. There are three areas that need to be nourished for a happier mood. The first is your gut.
In a very real sense you have TWO brains; one in your head of course and the other in your gut! These two systems are connected via the vagus nerve that runs from your brain stem down into your abdomen. The vagus nerve is the primary route your gut bacteria use to transmit information to your brain. Maintaining optimal gut function is therefore paramount in supporting your mental state. Studies have shown that when people take probiotics their anxiety levels, perception of stress, and mental outlook often improve.
For some of you, adding a probiotic may be a very important first step. You also want to choose foods that are going to support a healthy and diverse microbiome. These include high-fiber plant foods and fermented foods. You can read more about supporting your microbiome in my earlier blog post, The Mysterious Microbiome.
Balanced Blood Sugar
We also need to keep our blood sugar balanced to support a stable and happy mood. If we're dealing with spiking and dropping blood sugars all day our mood is definitely going to suffer. I bet many of you, like myself, know first-hand the nasty symptoms of being "Hangry". There are three main points to keeping your blood sugar steady throughout the day.
1. Don't skip meals. For most of us this means eating within one to two hours of waking up and then every four to five hours after that. If you are anticipating a long stretch between meals then you may want to have a planned snack ready to go to keep your sugar steady until your next meal.
2. Avoid foods that raise your blood sugar. These include refined and processed carbohydrates or foods with a lot of added sugar; sweets, soda, fruit juice, cakes, cookies, etc.
3. Keep your meals balanced. If your meals are balanced then you should get at least four to five hours of steady blood sugar before the Hangry monster starts to return. A balanced meal is one which includes some type of protein and fat along with high-fiber plant foods. All three of these foods take longer to break down and digest, keeping you full, satisfied, and steady until your next meal.
Brain Support: Feeding Your Neurotransmitters
The third area of nourishment, and the most obvious when it comes to mental health, is your brain. When you nourish your brain with the vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and fatty acids it needs to produce adequate amounts of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals responsible for communication throughout your body and brain) you will have all the pieces necessary to fuel a happy mood.
Two very important neurotransmitters when it comes to mood are serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin, known as our mood regulator, is made in the brain from the amino acid tryptophan along with the help of B vitamins. Complex carbohydrates (whole grains, legumes, vegetables) are critical in our production of tryptophan, along with protein foods. Fish and vitamin D are also helpful in boosting serotonin levels.
Folate, B12 and B6 seem to be the most critical B vitamins when it comes to serotonin production. Several studies have shown an association with folate or B12 deficiency and increasing rates of depression. Healthy B6 levels are associated with a more positive mood. B vitamins are also important in reducing stress and increasing energy.
Dark green leafy veggies and legumes are probably your best sources for folate while animal foods provide B12 and B6. Shiitake mushrooms also happen to be a great source for B6.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that functions as a natural reward and feel-good chemical. You can see why boosting dopamine could result in a better mood. Tyrosine is an amino acid that boosts dopamine. Thankfully tyrosine can be found in many different foods, animal and plant. Parmesan cheese, soy beans, beef, eggs, nuts and seeds are all good sources of tyrosine. Bananas and purple/blue berries also help to boost dopamine levels.
Chocolate produces a compound in the brain that can actually temporarily block feelings of pain and depression. It also contains other chemicals that can prolong the "feel-good" feeling. Chocolate has even been referred to as the new anti-anxiety drug. One study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology revealed that those drinking a daily antioxidant rich chocolate drink, equivalent to about 1.5 ounces of dark chocolate, felt calmer than those who didn't.
Omega-3 fatty acids support neurotransmitter pathways in the brain. There have been many studies looking at the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in combating depression and other psychiatric disorders. One study in Brain Behavior and Immunity showed a 20% reduction in anxiety among medical students taking omega-3, while past research has shown that omega-3 fats work just as well as anti-depressants in preventing the signs of depression, but without any side effects. Good dietary sources of omega-3s include oily fish, walnuts, flax seeds, chia, and hemp seeds.
The curcumin in turmeric has neuroprotective properties and may also help to improve mood and decrease depression.
Avocados are natural hormone balancers and support neurotransmitter production in the brain.
Take Home Message
By maintaining a consistent eating schedule and choosing a variety of real foods daily you will be well on your way to a happier mood. Let's summarize the foods you want to be focusing on:
- Protein - animal or plant based; include at every meal
- Complex Carbohydrates - vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes
- Healthy Fats - fish, avocado, nuts, seeds
- Fermented Foods (probiotics) - yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi
- Mushrooms - specifically shiitake mushrooms
- Dark Chocolate
- Vitamin D
The Rustic Diet is a great place to start. To learn more about the Rustic Diet and Lifestyle and to get weekly updates delivered right to your Inbox, subscribe to our newsletter.