To better understand the relationship between food and mood, think of a car trying to run on water instead of gasoline.
“Our brain and body need the right fuel provided by simple and healthy foods to make and regulate chemicals necessary for our mental health. Food is fuel for both body and mind,” says Nicky K. Smith, a clinical therapist for the Franciscan Health Employee Assistance Program.
Some of the most effective ways to boost your mental health start with the gut, says Anna Bower, dietitian for Community Healthcare System's Centers for Mental Wellness. "Your gut has its own nervous system, which sends information through the vagus nerve to the brain. What we put in our gut can impact the brain.”
Here are 10 ways mood and food are connected, according to these experts.
1) Lean protein is involved in the production of serotonin, one of the most commonly known brain chemicals. When the brain and body are deficient in serotonin, multiple body systems are affected such as mood, sleep and metabolic rate, as well as responses to physical pain.
2) Regular consumption of heavily processed foods with saturated fat, salt and refined sugars fails to provide sufficient amounts of protein that can be absorbed by the brain, contributing to depression, anxiety and other mental health problems. Processed foods may provide quick energy, but additives and preservatives do not provide nutrients to fight depression and anxiety.
3) Depression and panic attacks are known potential side effects of consuming aspartame, used as an artificial sweetener in many processed foods.
4) Food allergies may also contribute to depression. Gluten—a protein found in grains such as wheat, rye and barley—causes celiac disease. A strong link with depression has been found with gluten allergy.
5) Sugary comfort foods can provide quick energy, but unfortunately, sugar triggers cravings, overeating and weight gain. In addition, there seems to be no link between indulging in comfort food and recovery from a bad mood. Early conditioning, such as rewarding good behavior in children with a sweet treat, may play a part in why we look to sugary foods when we need a boost.
6) Multiple studies show that diets high in refined sugar impair brain function and worsen symptoms of anxiety and depression in teens and college students. In recent studies, the risk of depression increased 80 percent when teens with low-quality diets were compared to those with high-quality diets. Lean protein, dairy, legumes, complex carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables provide a steady supply of brain power for focus and energy through the day.
7) Fatty fish (omega-3 fatty acids) affect cognitive functioning. In studies, cold water fish such as salmon, herring, sardines and mackerel have been shown to reduce depression, attention deficit disorders and schizophrenia.
8) Low moods can be exacerbated by simple carbohydrates because these can develop spikes in blood sugar. However, complex carbohydrates release glucose slowly, helping us feel full longer and providing a steady source of fuel for the brain and body. Complex carbs include whole-wheat products, oats, wild rice, barley, beans and soy.
9) Leafy greens such as spinach, romaine, turnips, mustard greens and broccoli are high in folic acid. Deficiency in folic acid and other B vitamins has been linked with higher rates of depression.
10) Fermented foods, such as yogurt with active cultures, kefir, kimchi, tempeh and certain pickled vegetables, contain probiotics (healthy bacteria) and have been shown to reduce anxiety and affect the neurotransmitter GABA.