Food and Mood

October 3, 2017


-The association between what you eat and how food makes you feel –

I had an unhealthy relationship with food and my body for many, many years.  I punished myself with crazy diets, believed carbs were the devil, exercised like a maniac and mentally beat myself up every step of the way.  It was an unhealthy cycle that left me feeling unhappy, depleted and downright miserable a lot of the time.  I suffered from insomnia, constipation, my moods were awful and my weight fluctuated up and down.  I didn’t understand that by nourishing myself properly I could have avoided that mental anguish, would have enjoyed my life more, and probably would have felt a lot better too.

Nutritional psychiatry is a growing area of research that’s uncovering some fascinating truths about food and your mental health.  What we know so far is what you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and ultimately, your mood.  Food either promotes feelings of happiness or promotes the exact opposite – it all depends on what you eat.

Your brain requires a constant supply of fuel and that fuel comes from the food you eat – so what’s in that fuel makes all the difference to your cognitive health and therefore your emotions and mood.  It functions best when you eat high-quality foods that contain lots of healthy fats, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants which protect it against oxidative stress (free radicals).  Processed and refined foods have no nutritional value and simply can’t do this.  For example, a diet that is high in sugar is damaging to the brain – it causes inflammation, oxidative stress and worsens your body’s regulation of insulin.  Multiple studies have proven the association between diets high in refined foods, impaired brain function and worsening symptoms of mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.

If your body is deprived of good quality nutrition and free radicals or damaging inflammatory cells are circulating within the brain’s enclosed space, then there’s sure to be consequences.   

We also know there are strong correlations between what we eat, how we feel, how we behave and the kinds of bacteria that live within our gut.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate mood, appetite, sleep and also inhibits pain.  About 90% of your serotonin production occurs in your gastrointestinal tract which is also lined with millions of neurons or nerve cells, so it makes sense that your digestive system doesn’t just digest your food, but also works to guide your emotions.  The production of serotonin and neural function is highly influenced by the billions of bacteria that make up your intestinal microbiome.  In short, they protect against infection, inflammation, encourage digestion and absorption, produce vitamins and activate neural pathways that travel directly between your gut and your brain.  This is why nutritionists encourage pre/probiotics, wholefood diets and the need for a healthy gut!

There are multitudes of studies comparing traditional diets such as the Mediterranean diet with the typical Western diet showing that the risk of depression is 25% to 35% lower in those who eat a traditional diet.  The reason for this is these diets are higher in vegetables, fruits, fish and seafood, unprocessed grains and contain only modest amounts of lean meats and dairy. They are also completely void of processed and refined foods.

The beauty of these wholefood diets is they also encourage healthy populations of gut flora – thereby having positive influences on your mood, and they contain high levels of vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, fibre and antioxidants which we need for optimal health of all our body’s  systems and functions.  Without the right nutrients it is virtually impossible to produce the neurotransmitters and hormones we need to feel happy, experience positive emotions and cope with daily stressors.  

So where do you start?

  • Start paying attention to how eating different foods makes you feel – not just immediately, but well into the following day.  Become aware of the effects food has on your health and wellbeing.
  • Try experimenting with eliminating sugar and processed foods for a couple of weeks and then start eating them again.  Note any differences.  
  • Introduce some fermented foods into your diet such as sauerkraut, kefir or kimchi and get yourself a good quality, multi-strain probiotic (ask at your local health food shop for help with these).   
  • Make the choice to nourish your brain and body with good quality food.  It doesn’t have to be expensive or complicated.  Just keep it simple.
  • Investigate the Mediterranean diet or buy some new cookbooks that feature wholefood recipes.
  • Enjoy trying new foods and experimenting in the kitchen and feel good knowing you are providing your body with all the tools it needs to be happy.

Sara Dunstan