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How Food Affects Mood

Everyone can benefit from understanding how food affects our mood

"Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food," wrote the eminent Greek physician Hippocrates during the dawn of western medicine. We took his advice. Thousands of years later we use chicken soup to nourish our bodies, yet we question whether the right food choices can heal our mind. Some people are sure.

Inspired by personal experience, Amanda Geary founded the UK's Food and Mood Project in 1998. "I started the Food and Mood Project following from my own experience of recovery from depression where I noticed that what I was eating was having an effect on my emotional and mental health," says Geary. "In 1998 I won an award from Mind, the UK's leading mental health charity, to start the Project and help others to explore the links between what we eat and how we feel."

The Food and Mood Project is extensive. Geary's fascination with the relationship between nutrition and mind has prompted a website,, online support group, handbook, posters and large-scale survey. This recruited 200 individuals between the ages of 26 and 55 who lived in London or SE England. The results were substantial. Says Geary: "From the Food and Mood Survey results, those using this form of self-help found that cutting down or avoiding potential food stressors like sugar (80%), caffeine (79%), alcohol (55%) and chocolate (53%) and having more food supporters like water (80%), vegetables (78%), fruit (72%) and oil rich fish (52%) had the most beneficial effects on mental health."

Moderating Stress Foods

For many the knowledge of food and mood is restricted to word of mouth and stigma. Consider turkey's apparent sleep inducing power. Many Thanksgiving dinners end with a nap or at the very least, droopy eyelids. Though the tryptophan in turkey seems to be the culprit, our sluggishness is really due to overeating. Though tryptophan does elevate the brain's sleep-inducing serotonin, it does so in very small amounts. The true cause? An overflow of mashed potatoes, stuffing, pie and alcohol which shifts blood away from the brain and down to the digestive tract.

The connection between food and mood is not black and white. Some foods are both healing and stressful. Caffeine and chocolate provide initial exhilaration. Caffeine improves focus and stimulates motivation. Pleasant, until the crash that follows. Chocolate also gives us mixed results. It is laden with sugar and fat, yet full of cell protecting, disease killing antioxidants. These are called flavanols. Two studies published in the Lancet suggest that these flavanols decrease LDL cholesterol, the "bad" type of cholesterol responsible for clogging arteries. Pure cocoa has the highest levels of flavanols while milk chocolate has the lowest.

The chemical responsible for chocolate's uplifting effect is called phenylethylamine (phenyl-ethyl-amine). This is an essential amino acid, which is a component of protein. So though phenylethylamine is scary to pronounce it's nothing to be afraid of, especially for expectant mothers.

An April 2004 article in New Scientist reports that stressed mothers who ate chocolate regularly throughout their pregnancy had happier babies. Two groups of women were studied before and after delivery, one group ate chocolate and the other abstained. Six months after delivery both groups were asked to rate their infant's behavior. The chocolate-crunching mothers reported having babies that smiled and laughed more. But before you stock up on Cadbury's bars, remember that tomatoes and fruit have as much or more of this happy chemical, and are far healthier. The key to gobbling benefits and not havoc is moderation. Most experts recommend 3-4 servings a week, ideally as a substitute for your regular dessert.

Jolts and Jitters

For many of us a jolt of java provides a more upbeat morning. This is an illusion. All our morning brew really does is stop the withdrawl symptoms that started in our sleep. Even one cup a day drinkers will experience these as headache, irritability, lack of focus and fatigue. For heavier users caffeine withdrawl can be crazy making, according to the October 2004 issue of Psychopharmacology. After review of 66 studies spanning over 170 years, it was concluded that the more severe forms of caffeine withdrawal merit classification as a psychiatric disorder. So should we stay on the brew for life to avoid this? Not so. This only happens to one in eight people, with the disorder peaking between days two and nine. Even for these unfortunate folks this short-term madness is worth it. The benefits of being caffeine free include improved sleep and increased energy.

Caffeine is sneaky. It worms its way into painkillers, colas, tea and chocolate. The healthiest source of caffeine is tea, which has half that of brewed coffee. BBC Health estimates that the average UK resident will consume 80,000 cups of tea during their life. Despite its caffeine this is a boon rather than a bother. Though much research focuses on the health benefits of green tea, in many ways black tea is comparable. English Breakfast and Earl Grey are examples of black tea. Both types are filled with antioxidants. These protect our cells and have been studied for their cancer preventing effects.

A 1998 study at the Chinese Academy of Preventative Medicine in Beijing found that people at risk for mouth cancer who were given black tea for six months were slower to actually develop the disease than those who abstained. More recently the United States Department of Agriculture tested the effect of black tea on cholesterol. The six-week study tested healthy individuals who drank five cups of black tea daily and an equal amount that unknowingly drank fake tea. The results, published in the 2003 issue of The Journal of Nutrition, showed that the tea drinker's LDL cholesterol dropped between 7 and 11 percent.

Carb Highs and Lows

We can't avoid sugar. Even without a drop of honey, molasses, syrup and sugarcubes, this sweet delight finds us. Fruit sugar, or fructose, affects our bodies in a similar way as table sugar. So do carbohydrates. Diabetics and those familiar with Atkins are aware of the glycaemic index or GI. Put simply, this measures how quickly a food can raise our blood sugar. Since blood sugar triggers the release of insulin diabetics are constantly watching their carbs. Yet we without this or other insulin-disorders still endure carbohydrate confusion. Since insulin drives blood sugar into the cells and prevents fat breakdown in the body, high carbohydrate, or high GI foods are considered fattening. Yet carbohydrates are the brain's main source of energy. What do we do?

The trick to managing carbohydrates is planning. Eating a variety of low GI foods through the day improves mood, heightens energy and reduces weight. The latter is a result of helping us feel fuller for longer. Foods scoring below 50 on the glycaemic index release their sugars slowly, giving us vigor instead fatigue. Alternately, we can reduce the impact of a high GI food by eating it in combination with healthy low GI foods and protein. We can also eat more wholegrain breads. These slow down carbohydrate digestion. Preliminary studies show that the Omega-3 fatty acids from fish have the same effect. Slower digestion has many benefits. Stable blood sugar helps us avoid those not-so-sweet lows after a sugar high.

Though carbohydrates initially boost our mood by activating the feel-good brain chemical serotonin, they produce a quick and shocking crash. The dramatic lowering of serotonin can cause sleepiness, hostility and depression. The latter is most extreme. For proof of the relationship between depression and blood sugar, we need only to ask Diabetes UK. "Research indicates a direct link between people with mental health problems and diabetes. People with diabetes are twice as likely to become depressed," states Penny Williams, care advisor for Diabetes UK. This depression often results in changing behavior including alterations in diet. With less attention to sugar levels the depression worsens. It's a sad spiral. Says Williams: "We encourage people with diabetes to manage their condition with a healthy diet and lifestyle. For people with mental illness, making the necessary lifestyle changes can be hard."

Protein Perky

Protein is far less controversial than carbs. The right amount of protein at the right time is the way to stay upbeat and active. Protein is composed of many amino acids. Though ideally we should fill our brain with all of them, the one crucial one for energy is called tyrosine. Tyrosine is needed for the production of dopamine and norepinephrine. These help us keep focused, energized and motivated. Tyrosine effects our mood in multiple ways. By keeping our thyroid gland and its hormones active it helps regulate metabolism. Through this our stamina and mental clarity improve. Tyrosine is found in most proteins, but the best sources are sunflower seeds, beans, bananas, almonds, fish, eggs, soy products and dairy. If you "focus" you'll find that the effects of eating protein peak 2-3 hours after eating and are strongest when eaten alone.

Before concerns about contamination, fish was regarded as one of the healthiest sources of protein. Why? Herring, mackerel, sardines, tuna and salmon are rich in omega-3s. These are essential fatty acids (EFA's). Though we call these acids "fatty" they do not increase how many stone we are. However, EFA's will elevate our mood and increase emotional stability. 22 percent of the people surveyed by The Food and Mood Project reported that an EFA supplement "definitely helped" emotional or mental health. This is more than hearsay. Researchers began investigating the ability of omega-3's to effect mood after they noticed that depression is common in people with heart disease, and that low levels of omega 3's are found in both groups.

More support for fish emerged at the 2004 meeting of the International Society for the Study of Fatty Acids and Lipids congress in Brighton. Omega 3's are called such because there are three different varieties. BBC News, who covered the gathering, reports member Dr. Ray Rice as saying: "People who eat a lot of fish are generally healthier, mentally and physically, than non-fish eaters." How much is enough? According to the Food Standards Agency, on average, people in the UK eat a third of a portion (about 47g) of oily fish a week. They recommend two servings of fish a week, with one being oily.

Vegetarians will cheer to know that fish isn't the only good source of omega 3's. Dark leafy green vegetables, flaxseed, walnuts and seaweed all contain linolenic acid that the body converts to the same type of omega-3 found in fish.

Making Changes Last

It can feel difficult to turn from comfort foods to controlled eating. Plus if we eliminate too much to fast we risk losing crucial nutrition. So what do we do? "The approach I describe in The Food and Mood Handbook is about making step-by-step changes to what you eat, observing and assessing the effects, and then deciding for yourself what changes are appropriate to implement for the longer term," reveals Geary. "Although respondents views were mixed on whether these changes were easy or difficult to make, for many the tangible benefits made the effort worthwhile."

Although changing our dietary habits can be tough it can be done. Ironically, having more food available may help. Geary reports that "it is found that eating regular meals and snacks, not missing breakfast and being prepared by carrying snacks with you, were the best strategies for mentally health eating."

Galina Pembroke is publisher and editor-in-chief of New View magazine. New View magazine offers articles on self-help, health, animal rights and more. Visit


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