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Food for Thought Food for Thought
 

The Food-Mood Connection


January 16, 2013

By Maggie Shapiro, M.P.H.
Brigham and Women's Hospital

Have you ever felt depressed and treated yourself to some chocolate? When you are stressed out, do find yourself craving some comfort in pasta? Have you ever noticed that sometimes after eating a meal or a snack you feel alert, while at other times you are in desperate need of a nap?

Different components in food can affect how you feel after you have eaten them. When broken down in the body, these components can effect blood sugar levels and stimulate the release of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals) that send messages throughout your body. These include serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and acetylcholine.

Here's a review of the science behind food and mood connections.

Simple Sugars

Examples: Glucose, fructose and galactose found in white sugar, fruit and milk respectively

Quick result: Your blood sugar spikes and you get a short burst of energy.

End result: Blood sugar falls as rapidly as it rose. The energetic feeling quickly wears off. You're left feeling tired, hungry and irritated.

Refined Carbohydrates

Examples: White breads, refined cereals, white rice and sugary sweets

Quick result: Refined carbohydrates break down quickly into sugar. Your blood sugar spikes and you get a short burst of energy.

End result: Blood sugar falls as rapidly as it rose. The energetic feeling quickly wears off. You're left feeling tired, hungry and irritated.

Unrefined Carbohydrates

Examples: Whole wheat breads, whole grain cereals, brown rice and vegetables

Quick result: Unrefined, unprocessed carbohydrates take longer to break down into sugar. Blood sugar rises slowly; there's less impact on blood sugar — when you eat a regular portion size.

End result: Your energy levels are maintained over time.

Proteins

Examples: Meats, poultry, fish, eggs, tofu and nuts

Quick result: Stimulates dopamine and norepinephrine production. Proteins break down into 20 amino acids rather than sugars. One amino acid, tyrosine, stimulates the production of dopamine and norepinephrine.

End result: You may feel more alert, energetic and better able to concentrate.

Talking Turkey

Turkey has a reputation for making people tired. (Think big Thanksgiving meal.) But it has just about as much tryptophan as other types of poultry.

In fact, it's the combination of foods we eat that can cause us to feel this way. On Thanksgiving, for example, most of us usually have potatoes and stuffing (carbohydrates) with our turkey. As a result, tryptophan becomes more available for serotonin production. So it does indeed make us drowsy after a big protein-rich, carbohydrate-rich meal.

The Carbohydrate - Protein Connection

Eating carbohydrates stimulates production of the hormone insulin. It is released from the pancreas and helps move sugar out of the blood and into the cells. Insulin also takes amino acids out of the blood and into cells. One amino acid, however, remains in the blood: tryptophan. This makes it more concentrated than other amino acids.

Examples: Turkey on whole grain bread, peanut butter on whole grain crackers, and egg with whole grain cereal

Quick result: The higher concentration of tryptophan may stimulate serotonin production.

End result: Serotonin can improve your mood by giving you a calm, relaxed feeling. Sometimes, it can even make you drowsy.

Choline

Choline is an essential nutrient that is often grouped with the B complex vitamins

Examples: Wheat germ, eggs, broccoli, shrimp, salmon and milk

Quick result: It is needed for the synthesis of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that is directly linked to memory and mental functioning.

End result: To possibly improve memory and mental functioning, try increasing your intake of choline-rich foods.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids

Examples: Omega 3s are found in fatty, cold water fish such as salmon, sardines and mackerel.

Quick result: None

End result: Omega 3s decrease inflammation in the body. Two potent forms of omega-3s, DHA and EPA, have been studied for their positive effect on mood. Some of the studies have linked consumption of omega 3s to better moods.

Fluids/Beverages

Most people need about 64 ounces of fluids each day to stay hydrated.

Examples: Anything that is liquid at room temperature; avoid high-sugar, high-calorie beverages. Caution: Alcohol is a depressant and can interfere with your sleep.

Quick result: Maintains body temperature, pH balance, metabolism and other body processes.

End result: Adequate hydration helps prevent fatigue and decreased performance.

High-Calorie, High-Fat Meals

Quick result: High-calorie meals increase blood flow to the stomach and gut, while decreasing blood flow to the brain. High-calorie meals are usually high in fat, as well, which delays digestion.

End result: You feel sluggish, lethargic and sleepy.

Chocolate

Quick result: Increases the release of serotonin

End result: A calm, relaxed feeling

A recent study found that people who are depressed eat more chocolate than people who are not depressed. However, current evidence is mixed on whether chocolate does affect mood; it could temporarily improve mood, but the side effects of increased calories can lead to weight gain. Try a small piece of dark chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa.

Caffeine

Caffeine is classified as a mild stimulant. Three 8 ounce cups of coffee (about 250 milligrams of caffeine) per day is considered an average or moderate amount of caffeine.

Quick result: In addition to "waking up" the central nervous system, caffeine stimulates increased production of stomach acid, encourages the kidneys to produce urine (briefly), and speeds up heart rate.

End result: Limited amounts of caffeine — up to 250 milligrams a day — have been shown to improve alertness. It also gives a slight boost to athletic performance. But too much caffeine has been linked to depression and mood swings, and can interfere with sleep. (Ten 8 ounce cups of coffee per day is considered excessive.)

Eating the right foods is not the only factor that can affect your mood. It is important to get adequate sleep and daily exercise.

The Take-Home Message

  • Eat small meals and snacks every 2 to 3 hours to avoid dramatic rises and falls in blood sugar.
  • Limit the simple carbohydrates in your diet, which can cause you to feel irritable, tired and hungry.
  • Eat complex carbohydrates, which contain fiber and can help control blood sugar levels from rising and falling rapidly.
  • Include some protein with meals and snacks to slow absorption of sugars into the bloodstream. This will help prevent the rapid rise and fall of blood sugar, and stabilizing mood and appetite.
  • For a calming effect, eat complex carbohydrates.
  • For a boost of alertness and energy, focus on the protein-rich foods.
  • For memory and cognitive functioning, consider eating more choline-rich foods.
  • Stay well hydrated.
  • Get adequate sleep every night.
  • Stay active and try some stress-reduction activities.

Once you understand how food affects your mood, you can begin to make changes to your diet to shape how you feel. Remember that the best part is that your diet can be modified at any time — so take control of your mood today!

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Maggie Shapiro, M.P.H., is a Dietetic Intern at Brigham and Women's Hospital

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