Good mood food
On balance, do you think there’s more joy or sorrow in the world? It would be easy to think the latter, wouldn’t it? Especially in terms of poverty. But then poverty doesn’t always mean unhappiness. In fact, some of the happiest, most fulfilled people are the people with … nothing. Of course, it’s never “nothing” and people with inconceivable volumes of cash in the bank often spend days, weeks and thousands of dollars pursuing happiness – trying to define it and trying to achieve it.
The existence of Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project, is testament to that. Although it’s not just for the rich and famous. It’s for everyone and anyone who has ever struggled to find their ’happy’.
For many people, happiness problems are compounded by the fact that when they look at everything they have in their lives – they know they should feel happy. Compared to others, many of us know we are lucky and feel extremely grateful for it, yet something is off. Sometimes it’s the absence of love or connection, sometimes it’s the absence of meaning behind the day to day grind, but sometimes it’s just impossible to explain. Everything is right, everything is as it should be, but the positive chemistry and joy in the day to day is just …. missing.
That’s a tricky place to be. Because for these people, seeking comfort for the sadness they experience, feels indulgent or ungrateful. The fear is that by asking for help they invite in criticism – what do you have to feel sad about? – and that’s the last thing a person in this position needs.
Medical or psychological issues such as anxiety, depression, trauma and eating disorders impact mood in a tangible, obvious way. But others may not have a diagnosis to explain their symptoms. The good news is there’s nothing “wrong” with you. The bad news, “there’s nothing wrong with you” ie you can’t be “fixed”.
Or can you?
The great thing is that just as good nutrition can impact more serious medical concerns in a positive way, so it can also impact mood. Very simply, what you eat has an absolutely critical influence over your blood sugar chemistry, your hormones and your micronutrient status – all of which contribute to mood. With drops in blood sugar come apathy and fatigue, with unbalanced hormones come irritability and instability, with poor micronutrient intake (eg B vitamins) comes anxiety and depression. While that’s admittedly broad-sweeping, it’s also generally true.
So, if you or someone you love has an issue with happiness, it’s worth taking a look at diet to see if it’s a contributing factor. Always seek medical advice and counselling to make sure there’s adequate investigation and support, but also consider the following tips as a starting point from a nutrition perspective. Note that while I have picked these things out as a good launch point, mood issues are incredibly complex. These are simplifications! And on that understanding, here we go:
Good mood food
1. Look at the source of your carbs
Fast-releasing carbs mean a quick “up”, but also a quick “down.” Many of us (especially people who comfort eat), lean on carbs to improve our mood. Fast-releasing carbs (anything refined eg white rice; anything sugary eg cookies, candy, juices, soda) may perk you up, but lack the ability to sustain your energy. As your blood sugar crashes, you lose amino acids which results in apathy and brain fog. Uggh, who needs that?! Instead, pick slow-releasing carbs (brown rice, whole fruit, wholegrains) and pair them with protein (which slows sugar release). Have chicken with your brown rice, have nuts with your fruit, have eggs on your wholegrain toast.
2. Focus on nutrient density
Many of us are so focused on calories or macros that we forget about nutrient density ie the bang for your nutritional buck. Choosing white rice as a carb gives you calories but not much else. Choosing butternut squash gives you a big dose of fibre and some antioxidants (beta-carotenes) too. Now your body doesn’t have to search so hard for micronutrients, which it means it doesn’t send you so many hunger signals (easier to control appetite). And now your body is getting more nutrients that actually nourish it. Amazing! People often go wrong with snacks. Instead of some sugary junk, try a little quality dark chocolate (antioxidants) and some raw or lightly roasted cashews (full of magnesium, an amazing mineral that helps to buffer your body from stress).
3. Beware of nutrient robbers
While you’re focusing on getting the good nutrition in, don’t forget to prevent the nutrition draining out! Alcohol and caffeine tend to leech nutrients from your system. Caffeine is diuretic after 500mg. A large coffee-shop coffee will contain up to 300mg of caffeine, so take it easy! If you do drink alcohol, go for a 72-hour window each week when you don’t. This optimises liver recovery.
4. Make sure you have enough protein
When it comes to mood, and especially anxiety, reducing refined carbs and increasing protein is key. Quality protein is important though as no one ever got healthy on a diet of chicken nuggets. Protein doesn’t have to be animal-based. Nuts, seeds, beans/lentils, hummus and edamame are all examples of whole food, plant-based protein. If you are making a vegan meal, remember to layer a few different types of plant-based proteins, which will help you optimise amino acid exposure. For example, try a lentil (some protein) curry on a bed of quinoa (some protein), sprinkled with some seeds (some protein).
5. Some fats are good, remember that!
Most of us grew up in the age of “fat is bad”. We now know that’s not true and that even when it comes to saturated fats, some (from quality sources) is OK. Good fats, especially Omega-3 fats, help to nourish the nervous system. My favourite sources are salmon, walnuts and pumpkin seeds. If you like oily fish like sardines/mackerel, throw those in too. If you supplement with fish oils, make sure it’s a quality source that has been screened for heavy metal toxicity. I love the Nordic Naturals brand, Life Extension, Solgar and Innate Choice.
Sometimes we forget the obvious. The first symptom of dehydration is fatigue, which will always drag you down. Make sure you drink plenty of water to cleanse and hydrate yourself. Sparkling water is fine. Avoid artificial sweeteners and artificial flavours though. If you need a sports drink, pick something like Nuun or coconut water vs a bright blue Gatorade. I mean seriously, why is blue Gatorade even allowed?!
7. Sleep, deeply
Sleep is important, but especially REM deep sleep which is incredibly restorative. People who lack enough REM sleep can age prematurely by a decade – that was never good for anyone’s mood over and above the obvious impact on day to day wellbeing! Caffeine and alcohol interfere with your ability to sustain REM sleep. Exercise, meditation, balancing blood sugar and foods rich in magnesium (beans, lentils, green leaves/veg and nuts/seeds) improve sustained REM.
8. Create a supportive environment
Over and above your nutrition, it’s important to surround yourself with people who build you up in life. It’s the same with your social media and news channels too. When it comes to the latter, I am not suggesting you stick your head in the sand, but rather that you make sure you are exposed to enough “good news.” Try following Tank’s Good News and Upworthy on Instagram or Facebook for a daily dose of news stories that will make you feel great about humanity!
Catherine Burns is a qualified nutritional therapist. For more details: www.natural.bm, 505-4725, Natural Nutrition Bermuda on Facebook and @naturalbda on Instagram