Food has such an important influence on your mood. Whether they’re helping to boost your mood or the reverse. Think about how you feel after inhaling a bowl of pasta or other heavy dish. Are you alert and energized, or feeling sluggish and ready for a nap? Or what about that “hangry” feeling when you’ve gone too long without eating and feel irritable and snappy. This is all because what we eat affects the neurotransmitters our brain produces. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in our brain responsible for communication between nerve cells. Certain ones like serotonin help us feel relaxed while others like dopamine help us feel focused and energized. The foods we eat provide the building blocks for these chemicals, which in turn regulate and enhance our mood. But what happens if we’re not getting the building blocks we need from our food? This leaves us prone to mood swings, irritability, and even more serious concerns like anxiety, depression, or other mental health problems. Let’s dive deeper into the foods which are getting in the way of your happy mood.
Probably the biggest offender is sugar and by consequence refined carbohydrates. Addictive sugar sends our minds and bodies into a tailspin. After the initial high and inevitable crash, it increases feelings of anxiety, irritability, and depression. It also interferes with the body’s ability to handle stress, making it difficult to unwind and relax. A diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates can also raise inflammation throughout the body and brain. Research has tied inflammation to higher incidences of depression. Using data from the Women’s Health Initiative, researchers found that the higher a woman’s blood sugar rose after eating sugar or refined grains, the higher her risk for depression. Sugar (high fructose corn syrup in particular) also feeds pathogens in the gut, allowing them to overtake beneficial bacteria. In my post on Mood-Boosting Foods I discussed the link between gut health and brain health. Furthermore sugar suppresses the activity of a key growth hormone in the brain called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). BDNF levels have been found to be critically low in people with depression and schizophrenia.
Processed foods include a bucket of potentially damaging ingredients. Ingredients such as MSG, Nitrates, Artificial Colors, Artificial Flavors, or Artificial Sweeteners just to name some of them. While studies of diet and depression often focus on specific foods, research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry looked at more than 3,000 people and found that those who ate the most processed food faced increased risk of depression, while those who ate the most whole foods had much lower odds. What all of these processed or artificial ingredients have in common is that they have been found to cause neurotoxicity, specifically irritating and inflaming the nervous system and brain. Nitrates have been linked to headaches and migraines, while MSG and artificial colors have both been linked to worsening symptoms of ADHD. Artificial sweeteners are just as bad and are added to everything from chewing gum to zero-calorie drinks to toothpaste. Side effects include headaches, mood disorders, dizziness, and migraines. In one study, researchers at the University of Northwestern Ohio looked at the effect of aspartame (an artificial sweetener) on people with a history of depression and found that it significantly worsened symptoms. In fact, those symptoms got so bad that the study had to be stopped—some study participants actually developed suicidal thoughts. There is some evidence that the artificial sweetener significantly reduces serotonin levels, thus causing the increase in depressive symptoms. Panic attacks are another potential side effect of aspartame intake.
Many pesticides, like the processed ingredients above, have neurotoxic effects in the body. Crops that have been sprayed with pesticides like Atrazine or Roundup are most problematic. These chemicals have been found to affect mental health as well as causing mineral deficiencies, which are essential for keeping moods in check. Genetically modified foods are another problem area, especially for your gut. GMOs have been shown to alter gut flora, thereby promoting pathogens while decreasing the beneficial microbes necessary for optimal mental health.
Fats such as margarine, trans (hydrogenated) fats, or highly processed vegetable oils like corn and soy oils cause inflammation in both your body and brain. These fats which are high in Omega-6 fats compete with and block out mood-enhancing Omega-3 fats. According to a study published in PLOS ONE, trans fats can increase your risk of depression by as much as 48%. Purposefully following a low-fat diet can also be problematic. Not only are many of the low-fat foods on the market highly processed with the troubling ingredients listed above but this type of diet is also low in healthy mood-boosting fats.
Although initially while sipping your drink you might feel cheerier, your brain is busy producing hormones from that alcohol that increase feelings of stress and anxiety. As a depressant, alcohol also reduces serotonin and affects the nervous system, all of which can ultimately lead to a bad mood.
Research definitely supports the health benefits of coffee in moderate quantities and we’ve all felt the initial boost in energy and mood after downing a cup of joe. The problem lies if you’re relying on caffeine all day and still find that your mood isn’t as cheerful as normal. You’re likely entering the point of “caffeine overdose” and unfortunately doing more harm than good. Caffeine can alter your mood by impacting hormones, neurotransmitter function, and nerve signaling, all things that can leave you feeling less than stellar. It can also increase anxiety-like feelings by increasing your heart rate and making you feel jittery.
Gluten & Other Food Intolerances
A very common culprit working against our efforts for a better mood are food sensitivities. You may not even realize it but symptoms related to your mood plus headaches, allergies, achy joints, or digestive complaints could all be traced back to food sensitivities. If there are certain foods in your diet that are irritating your gut, not only does this impact your gut flora but over time this results in chronic inflammation, which can then be inflaming both your brain and nervous system. In fact, a number of studies indicate that wheat intolerance can have a detrimental effect on mood, promoting depression and even more serious mental health problems such as schizophrenia.
Take Home Message
Although your coffee and bagel in the morning initially does the trick and boosts your energy while lifting your spirits, as we just learned, it will ultimately disrupt your mood over the course of the day causing the need for more caffeine and more sugar to try to balance out your depressed mood. By the same token your happy-hour drink which initially helps you forget your bad day ultimately ensures that you continue to have more bad days. How do you break this cycle? You have to think of the long game. Although it’s challenging to initially break these habits the goal is to slowly cut back on these foods/beverages while you replace them with good-mood options. Eventually the balance will start to tip in favor of mood-boosting foods and you will no longer “need” those other foods to help you get through your day. Start small, with one goal, and gradually build from there. If you feel like you need more support to help you through this process or if you’re suspecting that you may indeed be reacting to some of the foods you’re currently eating, then consider reaching out to me for a free Discovery Call. I can help you uncover what’s really behind your less-than-stellar mood and help turn the tide in your favor. To receive more articles like this one delivered straight to your Inbox each week, Join The Tribe. (this article was first published on 2/9/17)