There is a reason why you reach for chocolate when you feel depressed. Scientists have studied the connection between food and mood for years. As a result, they have found that the foods we eat influence the state of our mood. After all, foods are essentially chemicals broken down by the body’s digestive processes. These chemicals all influence the brain, as well as our neurotransmitters responsible for mood. This includes serotonin, dopamine, and acetylcholine.
Foods affect our feelings in other ways as well. Something as simple as fluctuations in the level of our blood sugar can make a big difference mood-wise. Low blood sugar can make you feel tired and irritable, but too much sugar at once in our bloodstream can make you hyper. Sticking to a low-glycemic diet can keep your mood more even.
Carbohydrates may help boost your mood (which is why we crave “comfort foods” like macaroni and cheese). Carbohydrates (such as those in fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains) assist in the production and absorption of tryptophan into the brain. With the assistance of B-vitamins, tryptophan is important for the synthesis of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that can boost mood. A study performed by scientists at Arizona State University found that a very low-carb diet caused feelings of fatigue and discouraged overweight subjects from exercising. Just be sure to avoid simple carbohydrates such as foods containing refined flour and refined sugar, as they will just spike your blood sugar and cause a subsequent energy and mood crash.
According to studies, consuming foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids helps ward off depression and reduce anger and irritability. Researchers believe that omega-3s enhance the pathways of important neurotransmitters. They have also found that those who suffer from depression have low levels of omega-3. Eating fatty fish three times a week, such as sardines, mackerel, herring and salmon, can help you get a healthy dose of omega-3 fatty acid.
Just as there are foods you should eat to improve your mood, there also foods you should avoid eating. In addition to refined foods, you should avoid excessive consumption of foods containing caffeine, alcohol, hydrogenated oils and artificial additives. These all have been shown to contribute to anxiety, depression and difficulty concentrating.
Foods high in vitamin D (fortified milk, sardines) and selenium (seafood, beans, nuts, seeds, legumes, lean meat and whole grains) can also boost feelings of happiness. A little dark chocolate would not go amiss either. Just a small amount (1.4 oz) of dark chocolate can reduce cortisol and catecholamines, the stress hormones. Just don’t overdo it, as too much sugar can negate chocolate’s beneficial effects.