Friday 15 June 2012

Food & Mood - Eat your way better

This article first appeared in issue 3 of Alpha Fit

Feeling moody and tired all the time? A simple look at your diet could go a long way to making you feel top notch again, says David Stache
A connection between the food you eat and the mood you find yourself in has long been established in science. But it is surprising how easily it is forgotten in fitness circle. People talk about eating for results, but that generally means results in the gym or for a sport, rather than better moods or brain function.
But your mood will affect your performance in your job, at the gym and in your personal life so if you can improve that through food, other areas will improve too. Of course, if you really think your mental state is getting too much you should see your GP. But assessing your diet and making changes can have a very positive effect on your mind. There have been well-documented reports of improvements in mood swings, depression, anxiety, concentration, memory, fatigue, behavioural disorders and many others just from making changes to what we eat.
So how does food affect your mood?
Certain foods – vegetables, oil-rich fish and fruits – are known to have positive effects on your mood while others – alcohol, sugars and caffeine, for example – have a negative effect. Have you ever noticed that if you go too long without food you become snappy, weak, and fuzzy-headed? If you think about the foods you crave at this point, they will usually be carbohydrates in the form of bread, sweets, pasta and so on – rarely in this state will you crave a steak and some green beans. This is because glucose – the form of energy derived from carbohydrates – is what fuels the neurons in your brain. This is also another reason to control your blood sugar through eating complex carbohydrates : that will give your body and brain a constant flow of blood glucose.
But there’s much more to food and mood than just the brain being powered. Neurons are basically data transfers and are responsible for releasing chemicals called neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine and acetylcholine. These all influence the way we think, feel and behave. And essentially the nutrients in your food stimulate the production of these neurotransmitters. It’s not quite as simple as that, however, as food is made up of many different nutrients (both macro and micro) and they all interact and impact the release of neurotransmitters.
Here, however, is a brief list of what you should be including in your diet, and why.
Good mood foods
Protein: this is broken down in to amino acids, one of which, called tyrosine, increases the production of dopamine, noradrenaline and adrenaline – all of which are known for their ability to increase levels of alertness and energy.
Carbohydrate: aside from being broken down into blood glucose, carbohydrates also trigger the release of insulin into the bloodstream. This clears the bloodstream of all amino acids, except one called tryptophan. Once tryptophan is no longer being crowded out by other aminos, it can cross the blood brain barrier and be converted to serotonin which regulates mood, appetite and sleep. Low carb dieters have in fact reported feeling down around two weeks in to their diet. It is usually at this point their serotonin levels have dropped due to lowering carbohydrates.
Essential fatty acids(EFAs): Think in particular of Omega-3, found in oil rich fish such as salmon and mackerel and in linseeds (flax) and hemp seeds and their oils.The brain and nerve cells depend on these fats as the nervous system is made mostly of fat. So give the brain enough Omega-3 and it will function better. Starve it and it wont perform as well, resulting in you feeling sluggish.
Selenium: research has shown that some individuals lacking in selenium can be irritable, anxious, depressed and hostile. Correcting these deficiencies has shown to normalise the moods of a person, although getting more does not elevate it. Selenium plays a part in brain function as well as the functioning of the thyroid. Foods rich in selenium include Brazil nuts, shellfish, fish, oats and sunflower seeds.
Folic acid: deficiencies in this nutrient causes serotonin levels in the brain to decrease and low levels have been linked to depression in clinical studies. Studies have found that psychiatric patients with depression generally have higher rates of folic acid deficiency than the general public. Foods high in folic acid include dark leafy greens such as spinach, asparagus, citrus fruits, avocado and seeds and nuts.
Choline: this is a B-complex vitamin that is concentrated in foods high in cholesterol. Foods such as eggs, liver, salmon and cod all have an abundance of choline which when lacking can affect memory and concentration. This is due to choline affects the brain neurotransmitter acetylcholine which is linked to memory. In fact, low levels of it have been linked to Alzheimer’s.
The good news is that all the foods that have a positive effect on mood are generally speaking very healthy and nutritionally dense anyway.
You will also notice that I haven’t mentioned sugars. This is because of the instant hit they give, which leads to spikes in insulin followed by a crash, the results of which you will feel both physically and mentally.
If you look to include the foods mentioned above over convenience foods you should find that your craving for such foods will lower as your blood sugars will become more stable. You will also find your mood will be normalised or even improved.
In short, food does affect your mood, so make sure you’re eating the right foods to put you in a good one.

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