If you’ve ever experienced a ‘sugar high,’ or eaten ‘comfort food,’ you know full well how much food can alter your emotional state. In fact, it’s the emotional component that makes us love food—and in some cases get addicted to it.
What’s interesting, however, is that many times foods can affect our mood in ways we don’t realize. There exists a complex network between the gut and the brain, and what we eat can literally become fuel for our emotions—for better or worse.
Today we look at the science behind how food affects what we feel. Scroll down to learn about the gut-brain connection and how you can choose foods that will strengthen your emotions and leave you feeling great.
The Link Between The Gut And The Brain
Before we get into the specific ‘mood-boosting’ foods, let’s talk about how food affects your mind. When you think of your digestive tract, or ‘gut’ you probably don’t see an obvious connection to the brain. But did you know that many health experts refer to your gut as your ‘second brain?’ The connection between the two is so close that one can hugely impact how well the other functions.
Why is that? Your digestive tract is home to many of your key neurotransmitters (source.) Neurotransmitters, as you may recall, are chemicals that send messages between your neurons. In popular culture, we most often hear about neurotransmitters in connection to mood. The reason for this is that several neurotransmitters regulate your emotional state, such as serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. What most people don’t realize is that a massive amount of your neurotransmitters are produced in your gut. You would think that a chemical like serotonin would come from the brain; however roughly 90% of your serotonin is housed in your digestive tract (source.) You can see in this case why your digestive health could have an enormous impact on the way you feel emotionally.
Now the question remains: how does what we eat influence our emotions? To put it simply, the food we eat influences our gut’s ability to produce these mood-boosting neurotransmitters. How? Having a healthy diet promotes the growth of ‘good’ bacteria in our gut. The digestive tract contains billions of bacteria that influence the production of neurotransmitters (source.) Bacteria from healthy food (i.e. plant-based foods) helps restore balance to these neurotransmitters (source.) A junk food diet, on the other hand, can tax the digestive process and cause the GI tract to become inflamed. Inflammation can inhibit your gut’s ability to produce neurotransmitters, and that can wreak havoc on your emotional state.
Why ‘Sugar Highs’ Eventually Drag Us Down
We’re all guilty of it—at some point, we’ve turned to something sweet or starchy to help us get through a stressful period. In the short-term it works: junk food raises our blood sugar and activates the same pleasure centers in the brain as addictive drugs (source.) However, the inevitable crash leaves us feeling burned out, fatigued, and irritable.
Healthy food on the other hand stabilizes our blood sugar. Your brain needs glucose (blood sugar) in order to function properly. If that blood sugar level is too low or too high, it can cause our brain (and emotions) to go haywire (source.) The ideal, therefore, is for your blood sugar to be as stable as possible. Healthy foods will help your glycemic level stay even. This will in turn help stabilize your mood.
Is Snacking Good For Our Mood?
Many athletes and bodybuilders swear by snacking. They believe (along with some others in the health community) that eating small amounts throughout the day is actually healthier than having full meals. They call this approach grazing.
The theory behind grazing is that it can help control hunger cravings and give your body nutrients when you need it (i.e. a post-workout snack.) Some experts also believe that snacking can help regulate our blood sugar level (source,) which in turn can help stabilize our mood. However, as research continues to develop, scientists are realizing that it may not be quite that simple. Although snacking does bring temporary relief to hunger pangs, it also puts our bodies continually in the process of digestion (source.) We don’t realize it, but digestion is actually very taxing for the body, and it requires a massive amount of energy. Some studies also show that fasting between meals may result in higher energy levels and better fasting glucose levels (source.) With this in mind, it is currently inconclusive whether snacking is ‘healthy.’ However, as research continues, more evidence is uncovered that snacking may pose more risks than benefits in terms of mood.
What About Water?
It has been said that water is the ultimate energy drink. How can that be? Staying well hydrated is one of the main factors in helping us feel steady and on an even keel. Not only does water boost energy, it increases blood circulation and aids concentration (source.) The mood-boosting effects of water have also been supported by research. A study by Health Professor Dr. Colleen Munoz found that women who consumed water may experience less emotional imbalance and tension. The survey studied the eating and drinking habits of 120 college-aged women. After administering a mood questionnaire, they reached a general conclusion: the more water the women consumed, the better their mood (source.)
What Foods Should You Eat To Boost Your Mood?
If you want to stay feeling your best, these foods will help! Scroll down the following list to find out which foods will have the biggest impact on your mood.
What is it about protein that actually helps your mood? For one thing, protein helps stimulate the production of dopamine and norepinephrine (source.) These chemicals are ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters that are associated with feelings of euphoria and concentration. Protein also helps slow the absorption of carbohydrates into your blood, which helps keep your blood sugar from spiking (source a, b.) Some examples of healthy proteins are: poultry, eggs, seafood, low-fat greek yogurt, beans, and chickpeas.
Fiber performs a few key functions that are important for your mood. On the one hand it increases serotonin, another ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter. On the other hand, it also keeps sugar from entering your bloodstream too rapidly. Both of these factors can help decrease mood swings (source.) Good sources of fiber include: beans, oats, bread, lentils, peas, and vegetables. Usually, the darker the color of vegetable, the higher the fiber content (source.)
Although technically Omega-3’s aren’t a food (they’re an essential fat), they can be found in many food sources. Omega-3’s have many health benefits and may support joint health as well as help regulate blood pressure. However, they also possess mood-boosting properties. Omega-3’s may help promote a sense of calm and help reduce high-sugar cravings, which can lead to mood swings (source.) To increase your Omega-3 intake, try adding these foods to your diet: walnuts, flax seeds, salmon, herring, sardines and mackerel.
Vitamin D-Rich Foods
Certain vitamins and minerals can have positive effects on your mood. Vitamin D is one of them. Researchers have discovered vitamin D receptors on many parts of the brain. What’s remarkable about this is that these receptors are located in areas of the brain that are linked to emotional disturbances and imbalance (source.)
No one knows exactly how vitamin D works in the brain. However, some researchers believe that vitamin D plays a role in the production of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Some research exists to support the claim that vitamin D may help boost mood by increasing this chemical along with others in its class (source.) What is widely believed is that vitamin D may help aid mood imbalances that are specifically due to seasonal changes (source.)
Some vitamin-D rich foods include the following: eggs, milk, fortified cereal, salmon, liver and tuna.
B-Complex Rich Foods
Right now B Vitamins are so popular that you can even get B-12 shots in the mall! Most people associate the B-vitamins with energy. It’s true: the B vitamins help you convert the food you eat into energy you can use. However, it’s also true that B vitamins have an impact on your emotional state. According to the Mayo Clinic, B-vitamins play a part in producing brain chemicals associated with mood and cognitive function (source.) According to nutritional therapist Dr. Kerstin Koenig, deficiency in B-vitamins can lead to increased mental tension, anxious thoughts, fatigue, poor memory and mood imbalance (source.)
While taking B-vitamin supplements may not boost mood, lacking in B vitamins may contribute to emotional disturbances. The reason this is significant is because a large number of Americans are B12 deficient--and many of them do not realize it. Some studies concluded that between 80-90% of vegetarians and vegans have low levels of B12 (source.) Also, research reveals that more than 20% of older adults are B12 deficient because the ability to absorb the vitamin decreases with age (source.)
If you want to add more B12 to your diet, here is a list of foods that may help: eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese, chicken, liver, beef and fish such as salmon, tuna and clams.
Foods That Put You In A Bad Mood
Not too long ago, agave nectar was classified as a ‘healthy’ alternative to processed sugars and sweeteners. Because it is derived from a plant low on the glycemic index, many believed it to be a good dietary substitute for those struggling with blood sugar issues (source.) That turned out, however, to only be part of the story.
Agave is not only highly processed, it contains high levels of fructose, which is the most harmful form of sugar (source.) Believe it or not, it actually contains more fructose than high-fructose corn syrup, which has a notoriously unhealthy reputation. High consumption of fructose can lead to a host of health issues, including obesity, high blood pressure, and insulin resistance. All of these things can lead to disturbances in mood (source.)
High-Fructose Foods (Sodas, Candy, Juice)
Did you know that studies have shown that people who consume 2 or more cans of diet soda a day may develop ‘soda bellies’ similar to ‘beer bellies?’ (source.) That’s saying nothing of regular soda! Not only are high fructose foods bad for our overall health, they can wreak havoc on our emotions. According to nutritionist Mikaela Reuben, the sugar content of soda “causes a rapid rise in energy and then a crash, which affects blood sugar control, energy levels and mood (source.)” Cutting out these sugary snacks could leave you feeling more stable and ultimately more energetic at the end of the day.
Alternative: Sparkling Water, Dark Chocolate and Healthy Snacks — If you’re just looking for a snack, you might try healthier options such as dried fruit, raisins or popcorn. If you’re dead set on candy, dark chocolate can be a healthier option with some antioxidant benefits. As far as what to drink: sparkling water is en vogue now, and there are now many delicious flavors to choose from. Not only is seltzer water calorie free, it is also free of refined sugar and mood-wrecking ingredients. For inspiration, check out the different flavors of Spindrift Sparkling water, Polar Seltzer, La Croix and Perrier.
White Flour Foods (Bagels, doughnuts, etc.)
For many people, bagels have a somewhat healthy connotation. They are after all simple carbs that can give you a boost of energy. While that is true, white flour foods also create a spike in blood sugar, which will eventually lead to a dip in mood. According to Reuben, “this process will affect your focus, alertness, energy--all while causing rapid mood swings (source.)” It should also be noted that white flour foods will create the sharpest rise in blood sugar when eaten without protein, such as peanut butter (source.)
Alternative: Good-Carb Foods. If you need carb-fix, there are several foods that are lower on the glycemic index. Some of these include: sweet potatoes, beans, and minimally-processed grains (i.e. steel-cut oats.) Sourdough and whole-wheat tend to be lower GI foods as well, although it’s best to stick to small amounts of them ( source a, b.)
At one time margarine was actually considered a healthy alternative to butter (source.) However, the trend has reversed in recent decades as research has uncovered the dangers associated with trans fats. Not only does margarine contain high amounts of saturated fats, it can also lead to blood sugar imbalance and weight gain (source.)
Alternative: Try Several. There are many alternatives to margarine, depending on if you’re using it for baking or spreading. Actually, butter is in many ways healthier than margarine, although it still contains high amounts of saturated fat. If you’re looking for something tasty to spread, try avocado, nut butter, hummus or olive oil. If you use margarine for baking, try to substitute coconut oil, olive oil or ghee.
Final Thoughts on How Food Affects Mood
Currently mood imbalance is a major issue facing Americans. According to an NBC report, 1 in 6 U.S. citizens currently takes some kind of psychiatric medicine (source.) While finding emotional balance is a holistic process, diet can play a huge role. As you begin to add mood-boosting foods to your routine (and eliminate bad ones), you may find yourself in a clearer and more focused mental state.