Low mood, anxious, sad, feeling blue, feeling down, scattered, flighty, not feeling myself. There isn’t one way to articulate a change in mood. These plus many more, are all the ways my patients have confided in me that they just don’t feel right in themselves. For many people a change in mood is often overlooked, it isn’t physical so they adapt and get on with their responsibilities and it’s not until a significant stressful event happens that they notice how far their mood has dropped or how they’re not able to bounce back like they have in the past. There are so many factors that affect our mood and mental health, some of which are beyond our control. There is one however, that has a profound effect on how we feel and perceive each day, and it is right at our fingertips.
The food we eat is one of the simplest ways to impact mental health, it is also one of the most underestimated. As modern humans we have the tendency to overcomplicate things, we assume the worst and get too far ahead of ourselves, especially when it comes to our health. It’s important on any health journey, before we think ‘worst case scenario’, that we reflect on our daily habits and notice things that may not be serving us. Perhaps we’re skipping breakfast or only eating a simple salad for dinner? Whilst there is no one size fits all approach to health, especially in the case of mental health, establishing some positive food foundations is a great way to begin to improve your mood.
Eat regularly – ever heard the term ‘hangry’? It’s when you’re hungry and irritable and it’s definitely a real thing. When we skip a meal or wait too long to eat, our blood glucose levels drop. In response to this, our adrenal glands kick in and release cortisol to compensate for the lack of glucose available to energise our cells. This surge in cortisol helps keep our bodies functioning, but it also places stress on our nervous system which then affects our mood. Suddenly our fuses are shorter, we’re irritable and snappy. You can avoid this by eating regular nutrient dense meals to help stabilise your blood glucose levels. Learn to notice your hunger cues, try not to wait until you’re cranky and frustrated or even when your stomach starts to grumble, instead notice if you’re yawning or perhaps you can’t focus on your work, those are cues from your body that it’s time to refuel!
Protein with each meal – think of your metabolism as a furnace, fueling your body to get through the day. Carbohydrates are like kindling, they help create the spark, but they burn quickly. The star of the show is protein, protein is like a hardwood log. It is energy dense and it fuels the body for longer. This is important, particularly to stabilise blood sugar levels but it is also incredibly important for neurotransmitter synthesis. Neurotransmitters are the clever little chemical messengers that balance our mood and emotions. For our neurotransmitters to function efficiently they require amino acids, the building blocks of protein. For example: serotonin (our happy hormone) is synthesised from tryptophan, an amino acid found in foods such as turkey, eggs, legumes, quinoa and many more.
Fresh whole foods – sadly there isn’t one ‘superfood’ for a better mood, the key is balance and variety. Whilst protein is so important for its amino acid profile, a balanced whole food diet is just as imperative. Fresh whole foods contain a wealth of vitamins and minerals that are essential to our brain chemistry. Using serotonin as an example again, tryptophan is converted into serotonin, with the assistance of important cofactors such as zinc, magnesium, B vitamins, iron and vitamin C, all of which can only be found in a balanced fresh whole foods diet. Think fresh fruits and vegetables, good quality plant and animal proteins (including Omega 3 rich fish!), wholegrains and nuts and seeds!
Drink 2L filtered water everyday – the human body is made up of 60% water, our cells, tissues, organs, everything!, require water to function properly and efficiently. If you’re dehydrated you’re essentially slowing down your body’s ability to function and it has to try that much harder to circulate blood and lymph flow. If you’re experiencing brain fog, headaches, lethargy, low mood, have a big glass of water and then another. This is my simplest, easiest health tip, drink more water!
Fibre, prebiotics, and fermented foods – the gut and brain are intrinsically linked and this is due in large part to the gut microbiome. Signals from the brain can influence digestive function (such as motility, secretion and immune function) and messages from the gut can influence brain function including mood states. To keep your gut bugs happy, and in turn keep you happy, start with fibre. The more diverse the better! Dietary fibre such as Jerusalem artichokes, beetroots, garlic, onions, chickpeas, lentils, asparagus and cabbage (plus so many more!) are resistant to digestion in the small intestine, this allows them to make their way to the large intestine, where they produce short chain fatty acids that fuel good bacteria. These prebiotic fibres also stimulate selective growth of good bacteria, allowing the not so good bacteria to die off, improving the overall balance in your gut!
Pre-planned snacks – Mood and the food we eat are delicately intertwined and sometimes when you’re feeling down, the thought of preparing a nutrient dense dish is far from your mind. In these moments we are tempted with the quick fix options; processed foods high in sugar and full of undecipherable ingredients. We eat them and we might get a glimmer of satisfaction for about 20 minutes and then our mood dips right back down again. That is when pre-planned nutritious snacks are key. Think dinner leftovers, hard boiled eggs, sliced apple with almond butter, a handful of raw nuts, yoghurt and muesli, protein balls, a muesli bar, hummus and carrots. The key to these snacks is to have them on hand ready to go, they don’t require you to think and make decisions if they are in your fridge ready to be eaten.
Seek out sunlight and nature – the holy grail of mood boosters would have to be green therapy and sunlight. Spending time in nature has fast and noticeable effects on your mood and emotions (that’s why it’s called green therapy or nature therapy) by activating the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) and inducing a feeling of relaxation. Sunshine can also have a profound effect on mood as we require sunlight exposure to regulate our circadian rhythm to produce melatonin and one of the key steps in producing melatonin is the synthesis of serotonin (our happy hormone!). Additionally, low levels of vitamin D (sunshine hormone!) are associated with an increased risk of depression and mood variability. I didn’t need another excuse to get outside in the spring sunshine for a bushwalk, but hey I’ll take it!
Move your body – exercising, especially when done with friends, is a sure fire way to boost your mood. Moderate intensity physical activity has been proven to reduce anxiety and depression by way of increasing blood circulation around the body and having a positive influence on our HPA axis (our intricate stress response system).
Sometimes improving your mood can be as simple as looking at the foods you’re eating, the time you’re eating them or even stepping outside in the sunshine to move your body. Sometimes, however, it’s not that easy and you may need a helping hand. If you have questions or want to speak with one of our experienced natural health practitioners phone us on 02 4961 4075. We would love to chat and have you feeling better naturally!
Yours in health,