We all know how important nutrition is for supporting good heart health. But did you know that our food choices and eating habits can equally affect our mental health by shifting our mood, focus, cognition and energy levels? Studies show that nutrition plays a key role in preventing mood disorders, optimizing our concentration and energy levels throughout the day.
Let me start off by saying that psychological health is complex and determined by multiple factors. These include genetic, biological, social and environmental factors. In recent years however, attention has turned to the potential role of modifiable lifestyle behaviors, such as diet, in the development of common mental health disorders.
The current research has shown an association between high diet quality and better psychological well-being. Nutrient-dense eating patterns early in life have also been linked to better mental health outcomes in children.
However, relationships between food and mood are complex and unique to each person. For example, the effects of a meal might differ for each person depending on the size of the meal, the types of foods eaten, and biological factors of the individual. One person might feel more tired after a carbohydrate-rich meal, whereas another person might feel more calm after the same meal.
Specific nutrients from the foods we eat can also affect our brain chemistry, because they literally provide the building blocks for producing neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, the chemicals that guide our mood.
Let’s talk about serotonin…
Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter not only for mood control, but also for sleep regulation, appetite control, impulse and pain control. Increased levels of serotonin = better mood. Serotonin comes from tryptophan, an amino acid found in foods like turkey, shellfish, bananas, nuts, milk, spinach and eggs. Combining tryptophan-rich foods with foods rich in complex carbohydrates helps to increase serotonin production.
Did you know that the gut produces serotonin? That’s right, it produces about 90% of the body’s serotonin. The connection between the gut and brain is called the gut brain axis, and research has been growing in this topic. Theoretically, by consuming adequate nutrients and providing a healthy environment for your gut, you may be able to impact your mood and cognition.
6 Ways Food Habits Can Affect Your Mood
01 – If you aren’t eating at regular intervals, or if you’re not eating enough food
Your body needs a consistent supply of energy, just like fuel in a car. Your body gets energy from calories, which come from food. If you aren’t eating enough calories throughout the day, you could feel fatigued, irritable and have impaired cognitive function. Apart from calories, your body also needs a steady supply of glucose throughout the day. If you’re skipping meals or aren’t eating regularly, this leads to dips in your blood glucose (sugar) levels, which makes you feel foggy, irritable and tired.
02 – If you’re avoiding carbs
When eating regularly throughout the day, calories aren’t the only important factor to consider. The composition of your food is super important. Are you eating enough complex carbs? Enough proteins? How about fats?
Our body and brain’s #1 source of energy is glucose, which we get mostly from carbohydrates. When we deprive our body of glucose, this triggers the stress response, or “fight or flight,” which causes physiological symptoms like anxiety. So, if we are not eating enough complex carbohydrates throughout the day, we can be prone to mood swings and dips in our energy levels. Complex carbs include: fruits and veggies, whole grains and beans.
The other two macronutrients are protein and fat. Eating protein and fat with complex carbohydrates helps to not only make you feel more satisfied, but also to regulate your blood sugar levels throughout the day, meaning you’ll likely avoid those post-lunch energy crashes.
As we previously mentioned, a balance of tryptophan-rich foods and complex carbohydrates is needed for serotonin to be produced. Having low serotonin could make you feel anxious, impulsive, fatigued and even have increased sweet cravings. Therefore, diets low in carbs could be impairing serotonin production. This could lead to increased feelings of stress and tension over time.
Complex carbs also contain FIBER, which is essential for our gut health (as well as our immune system, heart health, and many other reasons). Since the gut produces serotonin, its production is highly influenced by the health of your gut environment (the gut microbiome). Ensuring gut health is key to promoting efficient serotonin production and has been linked to improved anxiety, stress perception and mental outlook.
03 – If you’re lacking essential vitamins, minerals and antioxidants
If you don’t eat a variety of foods, you could be lacking essential vitamins and minerals that are key to health. Deficiencies in iron, magnesium, vitamin D and the B vitamins can especially disrupt brain chemistry.
- Low levels of vitamin D have been associated with higher risk of depression and mood disorders. It also turns out that it is easy to become deficient in vitamin D. It is hard to get enough of it from food sources or from the sun, especially these days when we spend a lot of time indoors.
- Iron is another common deficiency among women, children and vegetarians/vegans, and can result in lethargy and mood disorders.
- Magnesium plays a role in supporting good sleep habits by promoting healthy levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes sleep. Making sure you’re getting deeper, more restorative sleep, promotes better energy levels and mood throughout the day. Magnesium also plays a key role in regulating the body’s stress response. Deficiency of magnesium has been associated with heightened stress and anxiety.
- The B vitamins are a group of 8 vitamins necessary for the body to undergo energy production. If you’re deficient, you could be feeling drained of energy on a regular basis. Especially if you are vegan or vegetarian and feel chronically fatigued, speak with your physician about getting your levels checked.
Research shows that antioxidants found in plant foods like beans, nuts, fruits and vegetables modulate brain inflammation and signaling. This is linked to cognitive function. Your best bet – make sure to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables. This will ensure you’re consuming a variety of different antioxidants – think, eat the rainbow!
04 – If you’re not getting enough Omega-3’s
Omega-3 essential fatty acids have long been recognized for their heart health benefits, but did you know that consuming them is also linked to lower risk of depression? Inadequate intake of omega-3s has also been associated with increased pessimism and impulsivity. Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory, help to fight off premature aging, and promote ultimate health.
05 – If you’re eating too many processed foods
So we talked about the benefits of eating complex carbohydrates. On the other hand, if we eat a meal that is high in simple or processed carbohydrates, like sugars and starches, our blood sugar levels spike and drop rapidly, also triggering the body’s stress response. Think post-large meal energy crashes.
Foods high in simple carbohydrates can cause insulin levels to spike and drop rapidly. This can cause hunger to occur again fairly quickly, as well as effects like headaches and irritability. Studies have linked excess consumption of ultra-processed foods to increased risk for depression and anxiety. Eating an excess of added sugar also promotes chronic inflammation and may worsen mood.
06 – If you’re drinking too much caffeine
Everyone differs in their tolerance to caffeine. Caffeine has the capability of altering mood by impacting our neurotransmitter function. It can increase anxiety-like feelings in some people. It can even disturb sleep cycles if taken in high quantities or late at night. Additionally, caffeine withdrawal in regular users can lead to headaches, drowsiness and lack of energy. However, small amounts of caffeine, like those found in dark chocolate, can stimulate the central nervous system. This can actually help you feel focused and alert.