Food and mood (2006)

When you think about foods being “good” or “bad” for you, it’s likely you are thinking more about your body than your mind.  Yet what you eat dramatically affects the way you feel, think and act.

When your brain is short of vital nutrients or water it cannot function optimally – and nor can you. But it still remains relatively rare for those suffering from fluctuating moods, anxiety or agitation, or for the people who work with them, to look with real interest at how food and mood are linked.

When it comes to mental health issues, food is never the complete answer.  Your moods and emotions are finely calibrated. Quite obviously you are affected by events outside yourself (and especially how you interpret them) as well as by what you eat.  Nevertheless, to increase your chances of feeling on top form, and to lift memory and concentration as well as mood, it is absolutely worth noticing what’s going into your mouth and whether it’s undermining or supporting you.

Water makes up 85% of your brain weight.  Keeping it adequately hydrated is a vital first step missed by many, especially the very old or young whose liquid intake – tea, coke, “energy drinks” – may be mainly diuretic. Water throughout the day makes a difference not just to mood but also to memory, energy and concentration. Protein rich foods are also vital for oxygen-carrying iron (your brain needs 25% of your body’s oxygen) and for the essential amino acid tryptophan that supports healthy brain function. Tryptophan is a precursor in the central nervous system of the neurotransmitter serotonin that affects both mood and sleep. Most anti-depressant medications also boost serotonin, but gaining tryptophan from food eliminates side effects. Soy products are a great source that additionally provides choline, another neurotransmitter nutrient. Cottage cheese, chicken and turkey breast, nuts, seeds and bananas are also easily included in the optimum mental health diet. It’s worth knowing that the glucose supplied by complex carbohydrates literally fuels the brain so a breakfast of complex carbohydrates (porridge, rice, wholegrain bread), along with fruit or juice, will give you a welcome serotonin boost a few hours later, just when people who have skipped breakfast or focused on sugary foods are already flagging.

Dark leafy greens, broccoli and asparagus, blueberries and strawberries, seeds and nuts star in the mental health diet. So do the Omega 3 fatty acids. Main sources are cold-water fish like salmon, mackerel, herring or tuna with reports suggesting that the more fish a country eats, the lower its rates of depression. Omega 3s protect the heart as well as the brain, and calm as well as lift mood. Flaxseed oil is an alternative source for vegetarians.

There is increasing acceptance that folic acid (folate) and B vitamins impact on mood. Just as interesting is the suggestion that a deficiency of B vitamins can produce a toxic protein called homocysteine found in the blood that may increase your chances of developing depression or even Alzheimer’s. Leafy green vegetables, asparagus and broccoli plus whole grains, nuts, seeds, and pulses and soy products, are again your best protection, along with lean red meat, prawns, chicken, raisins and apricots. A deficiency of selenium has also been linked to depression. Brazil nuts provide an easy remedy.

Eating fresh, varied foods and drinking lots of water seems a literally delicious way to support your brain and all its functions. But if those foods have to compete with lots of junk your best efforts will be undone. Sugary, highly processed or artificially coloured foods and drinks, as well as caffeine, keep you vulnerable to mood swings, exhaustion, irritability and cravings – however healthily you otherwise eat. Caffeine needs to be reduced gradually to avoid side effects. But sugar cravings can be quickly eased with yet more whole grains, green beans, nuts, peanut butter, prunes, seafood and potatoes, all of which contain chromium, a magical ingredient that reduces sugar cravings. Chromium can be bought as a supplement. However, the foods in which it naturally occurs bring many other benefits – giving “eating for pleasure” a particularly tasty spin.