By Beth Heller
We say it all the time. Well-being lives at the intersection of how we move, how we eat and how we connect with each other and the world around us. This September, our blog theme is stress. And, while our organization doesn’t like to get in the weeds of nutrition advice, we do believe that the “how and what” we eat can go a long way towards making the world (and our lives) a more rewarding place to inhabit.
By now we’ve all probably heard that what we eat impacts how we think. We even have a common shorthand for some of the more common food-induced mental states: food coma, sugar crash, caffeine buzz and fish frenzy (well maybe not this last one but fried fish is reported to be the most-craved food in Wisconsin according to Foursquare).
Teasing aside, while most of us have ridden the 10 a.m. slide into crankiness after a sugary breakfast, we’re less educated about the ways that what we choose to eat can actually help us crawl out of our crabbiness and improve our mood and our attention span.
In addition to substances found in food that have a pharmacological effect, like caffeine, the fuel-providing components of food – protein, fat and carbohydrates – work on mood largely through promoting or inhibiting specific chemicals that carry information throughout our brains and bodies. These chemicals fall into two broad categories, either stimulating (excitatory) or calming (inhibitory). Depending on their category, they cause shifts in heart rate, blood pressure, encourage or discourage sleep and/or mental focus.
One of the most important brain chemicals is serotonin, which is responsible for keeping our mood calm and stable. Carbohydrates stimulate serotonin in the short-term, which is why many of us crave sugary and starchy (comfort) foods in times of stress. Unfortunately, if the carbohydrates we eat are overly sugary or processed, lacking fiber or other nutrients like fat or protein which slow digestion, the rise in serotonin is quickly followed by a steep decline in mood (classic sugar crash = a 6-year-old on Halloween an hour after trick-or-treat ends). Protein, on the other hand can block serotonin production and create a sense of alertness and focus by promoting the production of dopamine and norepinephrine, two excitatory neurotransmitters. Other components of food can also impact mood. Fiber and fats promote satiety, which in turn promotes a sense of calm. And for those who like a thrill, chocolate and chili peppers pack an endorphin punch that promotes feelings of euphoria.
So, while this may seem like a lot of info, it’s pretty easy to put into action.
Nutrition Tips for Maintaining an Even Mood
- Avoid becoming either too full or too hungry. Stop eating when you’re 80% full and don’t wait until you are 100% famished to eat again.
- The best snacks contain a balance of complex carbohydrates (which have fiber to slow digestion), healthy fats and protein. Try an apple with nut butter, a small wedge of cheese and pear slices, or a few stalks of celery dipped in hummus.
- Before an exam or important meeting, emphasize protein. The perfect meal to eat before a mentally challenging event would include protein, healthy fats and whole grains: think an open-faced turkey burger with avocado, tomato and grilled sweet onion (whole grain roll of course). A square of 70% cocoa chocolate for dessert can add to alertness.
- Stressed at bedtime? Try drinking 8 oz of whole milk, warmed and sweetened with a very small amount (just ½ teaspoon!) of honey. Milk is high in tryptophan, an amino acid that stimulates serotonin production and the small amount of sugar will stimulate quicker absorption of tryptophan into the blood and brain. A bit of cinnamon helps mediate the effects on blood sugar. Almond milk is a good stand-in if you’re dairy-free as almonds do contain healthy amounts of tryptophan.
What are your favorite tips for using food to manage mood? Share them with us today!