Elevate Your Mood
While the cold can leave many of us feeling sad, a lesser-known fact is that a poor diet can aggravate stress and lead to depression. But a healthy, balanced diet can elevate your mood, help you think clearly and feel more alert.
Modern research has shown many correlations between what you eat, how you feel, and how you behave — and the kinds of bacteria that live in your gut.
Food is fuel for your body. What you put into it directly affects what you get out of it. Just like cars, if you fill your tank with poor fuel, your performance will suffer, and your engine/body will deteriorate faster. Your brain is no exception. The food you eat directly affects the structure and function of your brain and, ultimately, your mood and mental health.
When you stick to nutrient-rich foods, the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants nourishe the brain and protect it from oxidative stress. Certain foods and nutrients help your brain make chemicals that can affect your mood, attention and focus.
Diets high in processed foods and refined sugars provide poor-quality fuel that disrupts your body’s regulation of insulin while promoting inflammation and oxidative stress. Studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function — and even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and anxiety.
The bottom line: good nutrition significantly affects your mental and emotional health.
One of the biggest contributing factors of our declining health is our reliance on processed foods. These are high in flour and sugar and train the brain to crave more of them, rather than nutrient-dense foods such as fruits and vegetables. Given the ubiquity of processed foods in the Western diet, is it a leap to link an inadequate diet to the estimated 53 million adult Americans afflicted with mental health disorders? That’s 1 in 5 adults. There’s some food for thought.
Many of the processed foods we eat are highly addictive and stimulate the dopamine centers in our brain, which are associated with pleasure and reward. When feeling stressed or depressed, too often it’s the processed “comfort” foods we reach for.
Cravings for these foods are brought on by eating them in the first place. The more you eat, the more you crave them. Ditch the unhealthy foods and you will stop the cravings. When you remove added sugars and refined carbohydrates, you start to improve the physiology in the brain.
One reason the food we eat affects our mental and emotional health so strongly is that the brain and the gastrointestinal system — “the gut” — are intimately connected. Our gut and brains send messages to one another via the vagus nerve. This connection allows the gut to influence emotional behavior in the brain, and the brain to alter the microbiome of the gut. Anger, sadness, anxiety, elation and more can trigger symptoms in your gut. This two-way communication means your stomach or intestinal distress can be the cause or the product of anxiety, stress, or depression.
According to the American Psychological Association, gut bacteria produce neurochemicals that the brain uses for the regulation of physiological and mental processes, including mood. One such chemical, serotonin, helps mediate moods, regulate sleep and appetite, and inhibit pain. An astounding 95% of the body’s serotonin is produced by gut bacteria and has a profound effect on mental health. The consumption of complex carbohydrates (like sweet potatoes, beans, and quinoa) increases this feel-good chemical in your body.
Studies have even found that diets like the Mediterranean and Japanese diets, which consist of mainly whole, unprocessed foods, have a 25% to 35% decreased risk of depression compared with a typical “Western” diet. This is attributed to the high intake of vegetables, fruit, omega-3-rich fish, nuts, legumes, and olive oil with only modest amounts of lean meats and dairy.
Consuming a clean diet based on whole, unrefined foods with adequate protein, healthy fat and fiber also helps stabilize blood sugar after meals, linked to improvements in mood.
To boost your mental health, focus on eating plenty of fruits and vegetables along with foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon. Dark green leafy vegetables are especially brain protective. Nuts, seeds, and legumes, such as beans and lentils, are also excellent brain foods. The next time you’re feeling down or having a tough day, reach for one of these foods to boost your mood. Your mind and body will thank you.