Food and lifestyle upgrades to lift your spirits
Food & Mood
The link between physical health and what we eat is well understood, but did you know that your food has a huge impact on your mood and how you feel?
Modern science has extensively studied the impact of food on mood, and we now understand why food has such a positive (or negative) effect and also which foods we should be eating more (or less) of to support our mental health.
Managing anxiety, stress, depression and other mood disorders is complex, and there’s no one-size-fits all solution . But we know that the right diet and lifestyle plan combined with coaching to help you every step of the way can be an enormous help.
This blog is designed to help you take the first steps in supporting your mood through diet and lifestyle changes. Read on for practical advice that you can begin to incorporate into your daily life right away.
Good nutrition makes all the difference
Eating an unprocessed, wholefood diet can make an enormous difference. Check out this great bite-sized snippet from a podcast where Dr Rangan Chatterjee and Dr Felice Jacka discuss the impact of food on our mood and mental health. Dr Jacka was part of a group who conducted studies into the relationship between diet and depression. Their research found that more than 30% of candidates achieved full remission from their depression by switching to a simple whole food diet, eating more fruit and veg, legumes, oily fish and reducing their intake of junk and processed food. This compared to just 8% of candidates who were provided with social supports to treat their depression - https://drchatterjee.com/bitesize-how-food-can-improve-your-mood-felice-jacka/.
Food interventions for better mental health:
Few of us get enough omega-3 fats in our diet, and these are key to our mood and brain function. The dry weight of our brain is literally 60% fat - so it's not surprising that we depend on a daily intake of essential fats.
EPA, DPA and DHA – certain long-chain omega-3 fats – build and rebuild your brain, and are part of the equation for happiness. The higher your blood levels of omega-3 fats, the higher your levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin are likely to be.
Omega-3 fats help build receptor sites as well as improving their function. There have been ten good quality double-blind controlled trials to date, giving fish oils rich in omega-3s to people with depression. Five showed significant improvement, greater than that reported for anti-depressant drugs.
Most studies on anti-depressant drugs report circa 15% reduction in depression ratings. Three studies on omega-3s reported an average reduction of 50% - and without side-effects.
Sources of omega-3 fats include oily fish (salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines), walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseed and avocado. If you are vegetarian or vegan, you should consider taking an omega-3 supplement (e.g. DHA from seaweed). Most plant sources of omega-3 do not contain the long-chain fatty acids mentioned above. Although the body can make those from short-chain omega-3s – like the ones found in nuts and seeds – conversion is poor and it is difficult to get enough omega-3 that way, especially if you are not in good health or pregnant, which increases your need for essential fats.
Other foods and points to consider:
Foods which contain tryptophan e.g. walnuts, turkey, oats, bananas
Eating low GL (glycaemic load) carbohydrates keeps your blood sugar level balanced and minimises mood-altering blood sugar dips
Mood-boosting foods high in vitamin B: foods like nuts, seeds, beans and green leafy vegetables (which also include essential zinc and magnesium) are good for mental stability.
B6 and magnesium which convert 5HTP to serotonin
Gut health, consider intestinal permeability/ leaky gut and / or dysbiosis (more on this below)
Inflammation consider an anti-inflammatory diet as well as anti-inflammatory nutrients such as Omega 3 fats (as EPA), curcumin and ginger
Support anti-oxidant status and reduce oxidative stress
Consider vitamin D3 and zinc status and methylation support.
Good gut health is critical for people experiencing depression. You can support a healthy bowel flora by:
Taking a live bacteria supplement – administration of probiotics and prebiotics has been shown to diminish the stress response during difficult tasks, improve the integrity of the intestinal barrier, and decrease inflammation. There is considerable evidence suggesting that these improvements among other effects may contribute to decreased anxiety‐ and depression‐like behaviours.
Consuming fermented foods such as kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut and miso
Consuming prebiotic (fuel for gut bacteria) foods and polyphenols from berries, olives, baked apples onions, asparagus and leeks for example.
In the same way that eating well can positively influence mood, making poor food choices can have the opposite effect. Research by a team at Binghamton, New York, showed that young adults under 30 who ate fast food more than three times a week scored higher when it came to levels of mental distress.
Limiting sugar in its many guises will only benefit your mood as well as reducing processed fats or damaged fats, such as sausages, fried foods and junk food.
Exercise plays a key part in beating the blues
A number of studies, in which people exercised for 30 to 60 minutes, 3 to 5 times a week, found a drop of around 5 points in their Hamilton Rating Scale (medical questionnaires designed to diagnose depression ) – more than double what you’d expect from anti-depressants alone.
If you are feeling down and de-motivated, it’s not easy to get started on exercise: but the benefits are worth it.
Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and raises levels of the brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine. Higher serotonin levels make us feel good. Dopamine helps create a sense of motivation.
Natural light also stimulates serotonin. Exercise helps you to sleep, because it can “burn off ” excess adrenalin.
It helps to balance blood sugar and lose weight and that, in turn, improves your mood and motivation.
When you get started, aim for 20 minutes of exercise five days a week, preferably outdoors. If you are significantly overweight, this could be brisk walking – 30 minutes a day would be better.
Find something you like doing, preferably in a pleasant area, and with other people. It’s great to have an exercise buddy. Exercise then becomes another means of focusing attention away from yourself and your preoccupations, and of spending enjoyable time with others. An exercise buddy also adds accountability: You are more likely to show up.
The amino acid tryptophan is not only the raw material for serotonin but also for melatonin, a brain chemical that helps you sleep by controlling the sleep/wake cycle.
Mood and sleep have a lot in common
Lack of sleep has a big effect on how you feel, and finding out how to sleep through the night and wake up refreshed, could be the missing piece in getting you to feel a whole lot better.
The amino acid tryptophan is the raw material used by the body for making serotonin and melatonin, a brain chemical that helps you sleep by controlling the sleep/wake cycle. It’s the brain’s neurotransmitter, which keeps you in sync with the earth’s day/night cycle. Jet lag, for example, happens when the brain’s chemistry takes time to catch up with a sudden time zone shift.
As you start to wind down in the evening, serotonin levels rise, and cortisol levels fall. As it gets darker melatonin kicks in.
What can you do to improve your quantity and quality of sleep?
Provide more of the building blocks that make serotonin. Tryptophan, as mentioned above is present in most protein-rich foods like chicken, cheese, tuna, tofu, eggs, nuts, seeds and milk.
The conversion from tryptophan to serotonin requires folic acid, B6, vitamin C and zinc. These can be found in beef, broccoli, cashews, chicken, chickpeas, cauliflower, peppers, kale, kiwi, lamb, oranges, parsley, pumpkin seeds, pineapple, salmon, spinach, turkey and tuna.
Sleep action plan
Try to go to bed at the same time every day, your body thrives on routine
Keep the temperature in your bedroom comfortable; not too hot, nor too cold
Keep the bedroom completely dark, so you’re not disturbed by light, which your brain detects even when your eyes are closed. Eye masks can be useful
Spend time outdoors to soak up the sun
Take some gentle exercise every day. There is evidence that regular exercise improves restful sleep. This includes stretching and aerobic exercise. A brisk walk ticks both boxes
Make an effort to relax for at least 10 minutes before going to bed
Keep your feet and hands warm (easier in the Summer more so than the Winter obviously)
Consider getting a traditional alarm clock so your smart phone can stay out of the bedroom. Better still, work out how much sleep you need by going to bed 15 minutes earlier until you find that you wake up naturally before your alarm. That’s your personal sleep requirement.
Gratitude journals have been shown to help improve measures of stress and depression
Mindfulness doesn’t have to take much time, you can just do simple breathing exercises, there are many different ways to do this but a simple one is 4-4-8. This is where you breathe in for the count of four, hold for four and breathe out for eight, doing this for a minute each day has been shown to reduce the symptoms of anxiety.
You can also use an app for directed meditation or mindfulness if you want to explore this further. There are many apps available, some popular ones are Calm and Headspace.
Gratitude journals have been shown to help improve measures of stress and depression. One study showed that people asked to journal five things they were grateful for that had occurred in the past week were 25% happier than those who didn’t or journaled negative emotions.
Acts of kindness
One thing which has been strongly shown to improve our mood and wellbeing are acts of kindness. Practicing kindness also has a profound effect our own mental and physiological health, helping us to become happier and compassionate towards others. Being kind to others has been known to help boost our own immune system, slow down aging, elevate our self-esteem and improve blood pressure.
In many cases further medical help can be required such as psychotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy.
Low mood affects up to 20% of us at any one time, so everyone is likely to experience some form of it at one time or another. Many periods of low mood can be almost eradicated by following the simple steps in this article. Not only because they address many of the physical causes of low mood, but also because you are spending your time focusing on a positive action plan and learning new things rather than ruminating about problems.