Curtis James, MSc
Let's face it. With death, divorce, taxes and traffic, life offers ample opportunities to experience depression, anxiety, and other down-in-the-dump moods
Let's face it. With death, divorce, taxes and traffic, life offers ample opportunities to experience depression, anxiety, and other down-in-the-dump moods. But whether or not any event will continue to drag down your mood depends completely on your cognitive outlook. And foods have a direct impact on that. Chemical bits created from our food remain in the brain for many weeks. Our moods indeed, our thoughts, dreams and fears can be viewed as direct products of what we eat.
The nutrient most often associated with mood enhancement is tryptophan, an essential amino acid that must be consumed in food or supplements. (Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins.) The body uses tryptophan to manufacture serotonin, a brain neurotransmitter. If serotonin levels are low, the result is depression. Serotonin also affects sleep, relaxation, appetite, positive behaviour, self-esteem, impulse control, optimism and especially mood.
Most people get enough tryptophan because the body has a built-in mechanism that balances amino acids in the blood.
But if you're prone to depression, insomnia, migraines, weight problems, hyperactivity or mood swings, you may not be getting enough. Foods high in tryptophan such as cottage cheese, brown rice, nuts, avocado, dried apricots and soy protein (including tofu, tempeh, soy beans and miso) may banish those negative moods and soothe your troubled mind.
Carbohydrate cravings may be a physiological cry for serotonin. Unfortunately, most people turn to "simple" carbohydrates high-sugar, high-fat foods such as pastries, chocolate and soft drinks.
The link between mood and carbohydrates is strong. Carbohydrates directly affect the level of tryptophan that is sent to the brain. Here's how they work: When carbohydrates starches and sugars are consumed, they trigger a surge of insulin, which in turn decreases blood levels of all amino acids except one tryptophan. When the blood level of tryptophan is higher than the other amino acids, tryptophan enters the brain at a much faster rate. Then as serotonin levels increase, we experience a feeling of well-being.
Both "simple" carbohydrates (fruit juices, candy, cookies and chocolate) and "complex" carbohydrates (whole grains and most vegetables) can relieve tension and anger and boost mood. But simple carbohydrates have a short-lived effect, leaving you more depressed than before.
Many depressed people run for chocolate. It contains theobromine, which releases endorphins chemicals that reduce anxiety and induce pleasurable feelings. Chocolate is one of the best sources of theobromine. But it's a temporary high, which is why chocolate can be addictive.
Complex carbohydrates are long chains of simple sugars and fibre. They are metabolized more slowly than simple carbohydrates. They take longer to produce the release of insulin and have lasting effects. For a longer boost in serotonin, and therefore mood, choose complex carbs such as popcorn, potatoes, brown or wild rice, beans (and other legumes such as peas), oatmeal and strictly whole grain versions of breads, cereal, pasta and muffins. For maximum effectiveness, eat carbohydrates on an empty stomach and don't eat anything else for about half an hour.
Few people realize that fruits and most vegetables are also complex carbohydrates. To beat depression, choose bananas, avocados, potatoes, green leafy vegetables (such as spinach, mustard greens, beet greens, dark green lettuce leaves, turnip greens, Swiss chard, kale and collard greens) and root vegetables (such as carrots and parsnips). Eat a large salad daily.
Other foods also alter brain chemistry. Leafy green vegetables are packed with folic acid, a B vitamin that (in addition to warding off heart disease) can relieve depression by aiding in the manufacture of serotonin. Great sources of folic acid include endives, oats, chickpeas, spinach, wheat germ, barley, collard greens, lentils and okra. Other folic acid- (or folate-) rich foods are whole grain cereal, asparagus, avocado, walnuts, lettuce and papaya.
To help produce serotonin, the body also uses certain other "co-factors": vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), vitamin C, zinc and biotin. Vitamin B6 is found in avocado, banana, sunflower seeds, walnuts and watercress. Vitamin C is abundant in most fruits, including oranges, and many vegetables, including red peppers and watercress. Among the food sources of zinc are corn, pasta, oats, sardines and walnuts. And to get a good supply of biotin, eat corn, pasta, fruit, lettuce and oil-rich fish, nuts and seeds.
Polyunsaturated fatty acids (also known as essential fatty acids) such as omega-3 are indirectly important to mood. The brain is 60 percent fat, and a diet low in polyunsaturated fats can lead to anxiety, depression and other psychological problems. Omega-3 is found in oily fish (such as tuna, mackerel, sardines and salmon), flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and the plant purslane. (Canned tuna may not be a good source of omega-3 because much of the beneficial oil is lost in the canning process.)
Do you have unusual reactions to certain foods? If so, avoid them. For some people food sensitivities trigger negative moods. The most common culprits are food additives, caffeine, chocolate, wheat, dairy products and added sugar. If you try omitting them, you may find that your mood swings even out, your outlook brightens, and all manner of nasty side-effects will disappear leaving you feeling better than you've ever felt before.
Men’s health across the life course
Theodore D. Cosco, PhD (Cantab) CPsychol