Does Food Affect Mood?

Are you grumpy, moody, perhaps even depressed? It could be due to the foods you are eating.

Yes! Your food choices can affect how you feel in a number of different ways. Probably the area that has the most impact is in neurotransmitter production. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals involved in brain and other nervous system functions. Also called brain hormones, many of these chemicals are made up of amino acids, the building blocks of protein. If you limit the amount and types of protein in your diet, or overdo eating concentrated sweets and other simple carbohydrates, the balance of neurotransmitters in your body may be affected.

This ultimately affects mood, appetite, cravings, sex drive, energy and sleeping patterns. Whoa!

Neurotransmitter depletion also occurs as a result of dieting, with the largest declines noted in women who are victims of yo-yo dieting. This on-again-off-again cycle results in a condition that Cheryl Hart and Mary Kay Grossman refer to as “yo-yo brain” in their book, The Feel Good Diet.

The level of the most commonly known neurotransmitter – serotonin – drops even if you have only been dieting for three weeks! You can easily imagine what can happen with frequent dieting: fatigue, lack of focus, bad moods, cravings and an overall lower level of willpower. Who needs that?

Hormone imbalances or PMS can also increase one’s probability of depleting serotonin levels.

In addition to the foods we will discuss in a minute, serotonin levels can also elevated by antidepressant medications, also referred to as serotonin selective re-uptake inhibitors. You probably know these by their trade names: Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft and others.

The link with diet is really a pretty straightforward one, as serotonin is made from an amino acid, tryptophan, along with other nutrients such as vitamin B6, B12 and folic acid. Tryptophan is found in protein-rich foods; however in order for it to have access to and work in the brain, a source of carbohydrate is needed too. Minerals such as zinc, magnesium and calcium play a role as well.

Eating carbohydrate-containing foods causes increased neurotransmitter production. (For simplicity’s sake, we will focus our discussion solely on serotonin, since this is the most widely known of the brain hormones.) When serotonin levels drop too low, the body attempts to get things back to normal by increasing serotonin. How does it do this? Through cravings for sugary sweet refined carbohydrate foods, such as candies, cookies, jams, icing and other desserts. Why the singling out of these foods? Because they are refined, it takes relatively little time for the body to digest them, so their effect on serotonin production is the most rapid.

The problem really occurs after the cravings are satisfied, because these simple carbohydrate foods also tend to cause a rapid rise in blood glucose, followed by a sharp plummet. See what happens? An ongoing cycle that doesn’t get the chance to smooth out unless food choices change.

Examples of the more desirable, higher quality, complex carbohydrates are whole grains and cereals, most fresh and frozen vegetables and fruits without added sugar, lentils, peas, beans, brown rice, oat and rice bran, seeds and nuts.

Don’t forget protein foods such as turkey, chicken, seafood, lean red meat, pork, low fat dairy products, lentils, beans, nuts and seeds and fortified soy milk. These should be included at meals and snacks, too.

Are you wondering if food is the root of your mood problems? Self-medicating is not always the answer to complex issues such as mood; however, try making some of the dietary changes outlined in this article. It sure can’t hurt.

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