Many people suffer a great deal from fluctuations in mood. And the people around them may suffer very nearly as much. So isn’t it odd that we generally pay so little attention to how directly our moods are affected by what we eat and how we treat our bodies?
Maybe thinking about food and mood is too simple for most of us. Certainly the trends are now – and have been for decades – to ignore the remedies of good food and adequate exercise and rest in favour of seeking more complex psychological causes when life seems grim. Worrying about what someone else has done to us may seem more satisfying than considering what we are doing to ourselves.
It’s not that we don’t pay attention to our bodies. Many of us obsess about them. But often we don’t do this lovingly or with real interest. We look at our bodies from the outside, more concerned with how they look than how well they are functioning. That means that when our moods crash, our first thoughts rarely go to what we are eating. Yet even quite healthy people – stable in mood as well as physically robust – know how ratty and unreasonable they get when they miss a meal or two. And certainly every parent knows how miserable their children get with too much sugar or when dinner comes an hour too late. Eat poorly, and you risk your moods plummeting. As your moods plummet, your thinking will invariably distort. The basics really are very basic indeed.
Depression, negativity, anxiety, an inability to concentrate, mood swings, lethargy, forgetfulness, irritability, even panic attacks can all be triggered by sensitivity to certain foods, or – more commonly still – by failing to eat well. Of course serious mental illnesses always have complex causes. But it seems so that obvious that you can’t and won’t feel positive, energetic and stable while eating badly. The current pattern of low fat, low complex carbohydrate and high sugar eating guarantees diminished brain function. The brain’s deep limbic system directly affects mood, emotions, sleep and appetite. Your brain needs omega-3 fatty acids, complex carbohydrates and frequent servings of protein such as lean fish, cheese, beans and nuts. Proteins are the essential building blocks of brain neurotransmitters. Yet even though we know from our own experience how dramatic the effect is of food on mood we still far too rarely eat better to feel better. (In fact, the opposite is true. Our ‘comfort’ foods, or booze, make us feel worse. They can also undo some of the good that our nourishing foods would otherwise be achieving.)
Neuroscientist and psychiatrist Daniel G. Amen discusses food and many other issues in his brilliant book, Change Your Brain Change Your Life. But he’s a rarity. Most psychotherapists and psychiatrists investigate food fundamentals only when a patient appears to have a full-blown eating disorder. Even our biological psychiatrists are rarely biological enough. Dead (processed) food or too little food cannot support healthy thinking. But everyday disordered eating is so common and ‘normal’ it’s almost always overlooked.
It is true that eating well (and exercising and resting adequately) may not fix your problems. But feeling physically robust and stable will certainly make it easier to deal with those problems more confidently and effectively. A report in a recent Bulletin (Australia) described a relatively new Swedish treatment for anorexia and bulimia that is, correctly, attracting excitement and attention. These life-threatening illnesses are notoriously hard to treat and cause severe anguish, not least because the behaviour of sufferers can seem so wilful. What the Swedes have discovered is that the grossly distorted thoughts that drive these disorders are a result of starvation, rather than the cause of it. This is a profoundly important shift in emphasis. It points to the obvious: a starved brain can’t support healthy thinking.
When it comes to complex and especially chronic issues, the ‘obvious’ is often the place we are most reluctant to go. Our attitudes towards food are highly charged; our willingness to take responsibility for our moods is no less complex. Eating to increase joy and stability of mood could be the diet option of a lifetime.
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