Food For Mood

June 24, 2011  |   Posted by :   |   The Food Advice Centre Blog   |   1 Comment»

Well, the summer solstice has passed, the warm and sunny weather appears to have done the same, and so, it feels as though we are on the fast-track to winter.

In actual fact, we still have several months of light evenings and long days to look forward to, and we are well within our rights to be optimistic about some more sunshine to take us through to the beautiful autumn fall.  However, sometimes it can be hard to feel positive as all of the little things that life throws at us can make us feel like the world is caving in and that the prospects are bleak.

With one thing and another, this week has felt like a very long one, and one where the only thing that is keeping me remotely upbeat is the imminent weekend away with two of my best girl friends.  But when times are testing and it feels as though everything is progressively difficult to cope with, are there natural ways that we can help support our bodies to achieve a feeling of happiness and wellbeing?  Rather than reaching for a glass of wine or delving for the nicotine fix, are there healthier alternatives that may help to pick us up when we are feeling down?  We’ve all heard of comfort foods, but are there actually foods that we can eat to help us feel happy?

Mood And The Nervous System

The way we feel in terms of our mood is determined by our nervous system.  The body’s nervous system is functioning every second in order to process information from its surroundings and instruct the body on how to act.  The brain, the nerves and chemicals called neurotransmitters are paramount to this.  All of these require nutrients from food in order to function and carry out their important jobs throughout the body.

There are many neurotransmitters within the body, each producing a specific effect on the body when released.

Serotonin is the name of a neurotransmitter that has many roles within the body, including the control of appetite, sleep, memory and learning, temperature regulation, mood and behaviour.  Due to its effect on mood, a lack of serotonin in the brain can cause feelings of low mood and depression.

Increasing Serotonin

If the level of serotonin in the brain can be increased, it may help to enhance mood state and reduce feelings of sadness.  Serotonin is made in the body from a protein known as tryptophan. Tryptophan goes through a series of reactions in the body in order to make the end product, serotonin. Each stage in this transformation requires particular nutrients to work as ‘little helpers’: without these little helpers, the reactions cannot take place and serotonin cannot be made.  These ‘little helpers’ are known as cofactors.

Raising the dietary intake of both tryptophan and the cofactors necessary to transform it into serotonin, can help increase the levels of serotonin in the brain which may help improve mood and reduce negative symptoms.

Eating To Increase Serotonin

Building Blocks For Serotonin
Firstly, the body requires the protein necessary for making serotonin: tryptophan.  Sources of tryptophan include poultry, fish, tofu, eggs, cheese, milk, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and also fruit and vegetables such as bananas, pineapple, avocado, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, spinach and mushrooms.

Intermediate Product
Tryptophan must then be converted to an intermediate product. Cofactors needed for this transformation are:

  • Iron: red meats and organ meats are the best sources, but eggs, salmon, oysters, oats, spinach, broccoli and lentils are also sources of iron.
  • Calcium: good sources of calcium include broccoli, legumes, nuts, seeds, yoghurt, cheese and milk.
  • Vitamin B3: found in mushrooms, red meat, poultry, fish, asparagus and peanuts.
  • Folate (also known as vitamin B9 or folic acid): kidney and liver are amongst the richest sources, with broccoli, asparagus, legumes, sweet corn and oranges also containing folate.

Conversion To Serotonin
The intermediate product can then be transformed into serotonin in the body so long as the following co-factor nutrients are available:

  • Magnesium: found in bananas, leady greens, nuts, seeds, beetroot and egg yolk.
  • Zinc: good sources include nuts, ginger, egg yolk, whole grains and red meats.
  • Vitamin B6: red meats, poultry, fish, soy beans, sunflower seeds, legumes, broccoli and spinach are rich sources of vitamin B6.
  • Vitamin C: good sources include citrus fruits, broccoli, spinach, red peppers, strawberries and potatoes.

Lifestyle Measures To Increase Serotonin

Serotonin Reaching The Brain
In order for the serotonin in the body to be effective at enhancing mood state it needs to be absorbed into the brain. It does this by competing with other proteins (amino acids) in order to cross the blood-brain barrier. One way in which the body can flush out competing amino acids is by increasing its production of the hormone insulin.  Insulin is released by the body to ensure that the level of sugar (glucose) in the blood remains at a relatively stable level throughout.  Insulin production is increased by the intake of sugars (carbohydrates). More tryptophan should be available for the brain to convert to serotonin by increasing the dietary intake of carbohydrates.  Aim for wholegrain, complex carbohydrates such as wholemeal bread, whole wheat pasta, brown rice and cereals such as oats, bran or muesli.

Blood Sugar Balance
It is very important that the body has a regular intake of food and nutrients. If the body is left for a number of hours without the intake of food, then blood sugar levels can drop. With this sudden drop in blood sugar, mood changes can occur, and so symptoms of feeling flat or unhappy may be more likely. Regular meals are therefore crucial.  These meals should comprise a balance of fruit, vegetables, whole grain products such as brown bread, brown rice, fibre, as well as the cofactors indicated within this handout to help ensure adequate serotonin production. Highly refined and sugary foods such as white bread, cakes and fizzy drinks, should be avoided.

Vigorous exercise has also been shown to be a very effective way to increase the levels of serotonin in the brain. The raised serotonin levels can remain higher for several days following exercise.

Food For Thought

I think that most of us experience highs and lows from time to time, as throughout our lives we are faced with circumstances that are perhaps unexpected, undesired, or indeed uncertain. The impact that certain situations may have on a person is extremely individual, as some people seem to take everything in their stride, whilst for others, the slightest disruption to normality causes a dramatic drop in their mood that may continue for a variable amount of time.

Whilst there are medicinal methods to help those who feel they need some form of support through difficult times, a balanced diet of regular meals incorporating foods that may help to promote the synthesis of serotonin in the body, may further help to stabilise mood and reduce feelings of sadness and unease.

So, whilst a bar of chocolate and a plate of stodgy grub may seem the ideal choice for comfort food, try to think about the foods that not only make you happy for the moment that you taste them, but that may also help your body to do its necessary functions to help to maintain a feeling of happiness.

“Even if happiness forgets you a little bit, never completely forget about it.”  Jacques Prévert 

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1 Comment for this entry

  • Hayley

    June 24th, 2011 on 12:04 pm

    Thanks, this is helpful