Food for Thought: Nutrition and Mood Support
Who could have known that the past few years would be so challenging? Here we are, hopefully entering the final stretch and there is no doubt that as a global community, our mental health has been seriously tested.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.”1
Prior to the pandemic, mental health concerns were already considered the leading cause of disability in North America per year. There is no way to understand the magnitude of the mental health implications of the current pandemic yet, but we know it is significant, and the number of those affected are expected to increase.
Individual mental health is determined by a variety of factors including genetics, brain chemistry, circumstances, trauma, family history, diet, and lifestyle. In my professional experience, I tend to consider mental health as existing more on a constantly changing continuum rather than an achievement of a finite state. All of us sit somewhere along this spectrum, and at one time or another over the course of our lives, we will shift towards illness or wellness at different points or in reaction to significant events.
GOOD FOOD, GOOD MOOD
Regardless of where we are sitting on the spectrum, we have the opportunity to positively impact our mental health each day—three to five times a day, in fact! Nutrition can absolutely influence mental wellness, and in the case of mild to moderate mental health concerns, diet can be instrumental. There is an entire developing field to study this connection called nutritional psychiatry. This isn’t to suggest that diet changes can correct severe clinical mental health disorders or replace medications or therapy, but they can play a role in optimizing or worsening the picture.
For the purposes of this article, we will be focusing primarily on anxiety, low mood, depression, and coping with stress. Some of the important pathways in mediating these mental health issues include serotonin, dopamine, GABA, and norepinephrine, which act in concert in the brain to maintain mood, increase pleasure, and regulate sleep. Many prescription medications used to manage mental health concerns are focused on optimizing levels of these chemicals, and food and nutrients can impact them as well.
Serotonin, the neurotransmitter that helps regulate sleep, appetite, moods, and inhibit pain, is so important for both depression and anxiety. Surprisingly, the vast majority of this chemical is actually produced in the GI tract, and not in the brain. This means that the health of the gastrointestinal system doesn’t just impact digestion and absorption of food, but also guides our emotions. Inflamed digestive tracts or imbalances in the population of healthy and detrimental bacteria found in the microbiome can have a direct effect on serotonin levels, making our digestive tract ground zero for the connection between nutrition and mood. If you are consuming high quantities of processed foods, or foods known to be inflammatory (refined carbohydrates, red meat, etc.), or foods you know don’t agree with you as an individual, maintaining balanced mental health will be an uphill battle. It also creates a “chicken and egg” cycle because when your mood is low, you’re anxious, or your stress levels are high, you tend to crave more of the very foods that damage gut health!
If you're planning dietary changes to improve your overall mood and health, start by reducing these!
Caffeine is that magical elixir that adults love and swear by, but it actually causes problems for some. Caffeine belongs to a group of foods called stimulants and according to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Canada, caffeine is the most widely used psychoactive substance in the world. It acts as a stimulant that speeds up the central nervous system and more than 80 percent of adults in North America regularly make use of this power boost. In moderation it is likely fine, but in excess can be over-stimulating, especially if anxiety and worry are already present. As well, every individual has a different sensitivity to the effects of caffeine.
Mood mender: Try limiting caffeine to 0-1 cup per day in the morning or replace with green tea. While green tea does contain caffeine, it also contains antioxidants and L-theanine, making green tea a caffeinated beverage in a healthy package! Research has shown that people with anxiety and depression have a lowered total antioxidant state and an activated oxidative stress pathway, both of which can be reduced by increasing antioxidants in the diet. Additionally, L-theanine works to decrease anxiety and balance mood by increasing serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. Sounds pretty good to me!
Sugar, according to multiple studies, can be harmful to the brain. It promotes inflammation and oxidative stress, not to mention it can be a fuel for detrimental microbes leading to further imbalances in the microbiome responsible for a healthy GI tract (and sufficient serotonin). Research has also found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and a worsening of symptoms of depression and anxiety. Eating refined sugar leads to extreme swings in blood sugar, and ensuing insulin, and triggers a state of alarm in the body. This increases levels of alertness and vigilance, and worsens stress and anxiety. As mentioned earlier, it is often a vicious cycle leading to cravings for more sugar, exacerbating the situation over and over.
Mood mender: Steer clear of refined sugar as much as possible, and choose natural sweeteners like honey or coconut sugar when possible. Combining sweets with fibre, protein, or healthy fats can also be helpful to offset its negative impacts on mental health.
Omega-3s, antioxidants and B vitamins are crucial to your health and mood!
Omega-3 fats have been identified as anti-inflammatory and supportive to GI and mental health and are my number one recommendation for improving mental wellbeing. Since they can’t be made by the body, omega-3s must be consumed either through diet or supplementation. Try to include more cold water fish, nuts and seeds, seaweeds, and algae to your diet.
Antioxidants can be helpful for both brain and mood. They come from brightly-coloured fruits and vegetables, and foods containing vitamins A (sweet potatoes and carrots), C (papaya and bell peppers), and E (sunflower seeds and almonds). Other notable antioxidants are found in green tea, rosemary, and turmeric.
B vitamins are required for the production and regulation of dopamine and serotonin. This means they are implicated in the regulation of mood, as well as clinical depression and anxiety. Foods rich in B vitamins include sunflower seeds, beans, spinach, poultry, salmon, mushrooms, and avocado.
Beyond Your Daily Bread
How we eat impacts our mood as well. Stress inhibits and interferes with every aspect of digestive functioning and the efficient use of nutrients. Even if you eat all the best foods, chronic stress can stop your body from making good use of them, leading to deficiencies and a state of alarm in the body.
Additionally, it is important to regulate blood sugar. Long gaps between meals, or meals composed of too many simple carbohydrates will spike and crash the system, leading to heightened stress. Instead, try to eat regularly, in an intentional way, that stabilizes blood sugar and digestion.
Finally, learning to eat slowly and mindfully will increase your enjoyment of meals, and help you make food choices that are better for you. Take pleasure in food and let eating be a time of connection and engagement with family or friends, or a time of gratification just for yourself.
For references visit ecoparent.ca/extras/win20.