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Mind, body, and soul. Everything’s connected and what you put in your body has a direct effect on the way you feel both physically and mentally. While this idea’s been around forever, after all how many times have you heard people say ‘you are what you eat’, with more and more people focused on natural health and wellness, they’re beginning to see just how true this age-old adage really is.
How Food Affects Your Mood
What we eat can produce serious long-term effects on how we feel and the impact your food choices make on your mental health is huge. You might be wondering just how huge is huge? Think big here, because what we eat is doing a pretty good job of dictating how we experience the emotions in our day-to-day lives.
While research on the association between food and mood is relatively new from a scientific standpoint, people have been eating foods that benefit their minds for thousands of years. For the past decade or so however, the scientific community in the West has been studying this idea, and results from study after study are showing a pretty consistent correlation. What we put in our bodies is showing a direct link to our emotions, including conditions like depression and anxiety.
Our bodies are a reflection of the food we eat, and it seems that our brains are no different. Not only does eating unhealthy food have a huge effect on the way our physical bodies function (you’ve more than likely experienced a sugar crash or two), but research has begun to show that the way our brain functions also has a lot to do with the foods we eat.
How What You Eat Affects Your Brain
What you’re eating has a lot to do with what happens in your brain. Take for instance, one study that was performed on rats showed that those fed a high-fat diet that was full of refined sugar had a reduction in the amount of neurotrophins in their brains. What do neurotrophins do exactly, and why should you care if they’re diminished by eating a few donuts?
Neurotrophins are actually a “little” family of proteins inside the brain (we start out with between 10 and 100 billion at birth) that encourage the growth, development, and function of neurons. And neurons are responsible for transmitting information to other cells in the body, which in turn dictate how we feel.
You’ve probably heard of neurotransmitters. These are the neurons in your brain that have a huge impact on the way we feel. These are what “transmit” information the brain receives. Dopamine and serotonin are the most well-known neurotransmitters, and are the ones that people often refer to as “feel good” chemicals. Others include GABA and adrenaline, and all are responsible for helping to make you feel your best. When these neurotransmitters aren’t firing on all cylinders we run the risk of being subjected to depression and various states of mental fatigue.
Another way that food affects the way you feel mentally is through oxidative stress. Free radicals, the toxins found in the environment, food, cleaning products, and personal care products that are famous for promoting toxic build-up and disease in the body, are all examples of oxidative stress. Over time these toxins build up and cause significant damage to your cells, and if they become too damaged they end up inhibiting the function of your brain.
We’ve talked a lot about antioxidants and how important they are for maintaining health and wellness. Oxidative stress is one of the major reasons why that is. Without consuming foods that help fight the toxins in your body, not only can they affect the way you feel physically and cause diseases like cancer and diabetes, but can also genuinely influence your mental state. Depression is a documented “disease” and one you might find yourself right in the midst of if the cells in your brain become too damaged by oxidation.
If depression and anxiety have caught you in their grips, you might want to rethink the prescription medication and focus on your diet instead. Many people who have suffered from depression have found that changing their diet has worked with amazing results, with symptoms disappearing completely, without the need for any mood-stabilizing meds.
Eating the Right Food for a Better Mood
Although studies on the relationship between your mental well-being and what you eat are at their infancy stage, it’s pretty safe to say that what you eat is going to influence how you feel. If French fries, donuts, and burgers have you singing the blues, try incorporating some of the following into your diet and you’ll soon see just how much better you feel.
Foods to Avoid
1. Junk Food, Fast Food, Processed Food
While this should be a no-brainer, many of us are accustomed to a diet that isn’t exactly the healthiest. Breaking the junk food habit may prove to be more difficult than you might think. These foods that are so readily available, super convenient, and usually fairly cheap have weaseled their way into our systems and made us think that we’re dependent on them for feeling good.
Think of it like this: Serotonin and dopamine are two of the main chemicals in our brain that make us feel good. When there’s a drop in the levels of these feel-good chemicals many of us turn to junk food to make us feel better. While it does make us feel better for a minute, these foods are responsible for creating inflammation in our guts, which in turn leads to oxidative stress in the brain. When not fed the proper nutrients, serotonin and dopamine levels quickly drop and we end up feeling worse than when we started.
This junk food dependency is a cycle that if not broken and replaced with cleaner eating habits, can keep us in a serious state of mental anguish. The pepperoni pizza is NOT going to make you feel better. Neither are the pre-packaged, processed foods or the sugary sweets. Avoiding junk food is the first step to take if you want to enhance the way you feel.
Are you aware that sugar can lead to serious instability in our blood sugar levels? Not only can this cause mood swings and emotional instability, but can also affect the way your brain functions. This goes back to the neurons we talked about before, with sugar suppressing their growth and function.
Studies have shown that sugar ceases the activity of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which is something that greatly aids in the function of your brain. It’s been suggested that those who suffer from depression and schizophrenia are thought to have lower levels of BDNF. See the connection there?
Sugar is literally in almost everything, and can be pretty difficult to avoid but it is definitely possible! When you take the time to read your labels and avoid items containing sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, you’re taking the steps to decrease this debilitating substance that is a major trigger for depression and other less desirable states of mind such as anxiety.
Those that have pledged to stay away from gluten may have something else going for them aside from relief from bloating, lethargy, and flatulence. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley that may just have a serious effect on your mental state as well.
With the amount of people that have developed gluten intolerance, studies of gluten and its effects on the body are ever increasing. Many of these studies point to the brain’s reaction to gluten and highlight how gluten can have a serious negative impact on mood. It seems that gluten is something that encourages not only depression, but schizophrenia as well.
Wheat is something that prevents the production of serotonin. This “feel good” neurotransmitter we all think of as part of our brain is also found in our gut. It’s true and the largest concentration of serotonin in your body is actually found in your intestines. More wheat equals less serotonin production which in turn equals a decreased sense of well-being. See how it’s all connected?
The sooner you join the ranks of all the others that have “gone gluten-free”, the sooner you’ll begin to level out your serotonin levels, which will greatly help level out your mood.
What to Eat to Find Your Happy
Contrary to popular belief, happiness in not found in a pint of ice cream. Choosing the following foods will boost your mood and make you feel good, just as nature intended.
1. Focus on Whole Foods
A good place to start is by getting back to basics. Instead of relying on fast and processed foods for fuel, let your focus shift towards unprocessed, whole foods. Whole grains, organic dairy products, and plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables will do wonders for your emotional state.
This is the food we were always intended to eat and unlike our modern diets, they don’t wreak havoc on our health. All those processed, packaged cheeses, meats, and snacks are so processed that in a sense, they’re not even real food. No wonder we feel awful considering how many unhealthy food choices we’re faced with every day.
We do however have a choice of what we put into our bodies. Choosing to avoid the countless unhealthy options available and purchase only whole foods instead is something everyone can do. The sooner you make this choice, the sooner you’ll start to feel better.
2. Eat Lots of Fruits and Veggies
Fruits and veggies are excellent aids in offering your mind the many nutrients it needs to function at its best. All those antioxidants and phytochemicals we need to counteract toxicity are found in a variety of fruits and vegetables.
Studies on diet and the benefits of adding more fruits and vegetables to it have shown similar positive results across the board. Eating wholesome fruits and vegetables is excellent for mental health.
Making sure to give your body a variety of dark, leafy greens, colorful vegetables, and fruits that are packed with nutrients is vital if you want to change your mental state. Pick things like kale, spinach, and chard. Add strawberries, blueberries, and bananas to your life on a regular basis, and cook up some color with beets, bell pepper, and carrots.
3. Get Plenty of Vitamin B12
Vitamin B12 (and other B vitamins) plays a huge role in your mood. Low levels of B12 are often linked straight to depression and getting enough of this powerful nutrient is vital to our mental health.
B12 is only found in animal products, so strict vegans may experience a deficiency in this nutrient. Those that aren’t vegan can get adequate amounts of B12 in their diet from eating things such as cheese and lean red meats. Supplements are also widely available and if you’re experiencing feelings of depression or anxiety, you may want to take a look at just how much vitamin B you’re actually getting.
4. Introduce Fermented Foods to Your Diet
With a direct connection between your gut and mental health, it should come as no surprise that eating foods that promote healthy digestion is optimal for your mood. Fermented foods such as kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut, and miso are all full of healthy probiotic bacteria. This healthy bacterium is what fights off the bad bacteria causing mental distress.
You may also want to add a daily probiotic supplement to your diet. If you’re not one to eat fermented foods on a regular basis (and not many people are) supplementing with a probiotic is recommended.
In a nutshell (walnuts are great for your brain, by the way) the foods you eat are going to make you feel either better or worse depending on what it is. When you continue to eat crap, that’s exactly the way you’re going to feel.
There is hope, however. If you suffer from depression take a look at what you eat on a regular basis, and you just might be surprised at how much of it has to do with your diet. When it comes down to it, eating whole foods that are rich in nutrients is often the only medicine you need.