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Food and Mood

by Beth Heller, M.S.

Healthy Dinner Depression, as you likely know, is linked to higher rates of infertility in women.  And, with research showing that women struggling with infertility have anxiety and depression rates equal to women with cancer and HIV, it stands to reason that ANYTHING we can do to help support our emotional well-being is essential when we’re trying to conceive.  One simple step you can take to improve your emotional balance is to make better foods choices.

Research is beginning to support what any chocolate lover has known for years –  food has a profound effect on mood.  Let’s take a closer look at the intersection of food and brain chemistry to learn how our diet can help us manage our state of mind.

Foods, it seems, alter our mood through several different mechanisms:  neurotransmitters, endorphins and satiety.

Neurotransmitters (NTs) are chemicals that communicate information throughout the brain and body.    They affect physical variables like heart rate and blood pressure, as well as sleep, the ability to concentrate and overall mood.  Neurotransmitters can be either excitatory or inhibitory.  Excitatory neurotransmitters stimulate the brain while inhibitory neurotransmitters calm the brain.  In times of stress and agitation, inhibitory neurotransmitters can become depleted as they strive to “keep the peace.”

Three neurotransmitters have been extensively studied in relation to food:  dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin.  Dopamine and norepinephrine are associated with alertness (excitatory) while serotonin is associated with a calming, anti-anxiety effect (inhibitory).

Inhibitory NTs: Adequate levels of the inhibitory NT serotonin are necessary for a stable mood and to counteract excitatory NTs in times of stress and stimulation.  When brain serotonin levels are stable, our mood is generally balanced.  When serotonin fluctuates, we can experience ups and downs in our emotional state.

Carbohydrates cause a short-term increase in serotonin levels, and a subsequent mood boost, which is one reason many people may crave a sugary or potato-chippy snack when they are feeling stressed out or sad.  The serotonin/carbohydrate relationship is a double-edged sword, however, as reaching for that sugary snack can prompt a sugar crash, and an emotional bummer, later.  Serotonin levels can also be depleted during withdrawal from long-term use of caffeine and stimulants which explains the temporary depression/blues that accompany getting “off the java.”

Excitatory NTs: Protein, on the other hand, may block serotonin production and promote the production of two neurotransmitters that increase our alertness and ability to concentrate.  Dopamine and norepinephrine increase with consumption of protein-rich foods.

Neurotransmitters can become depleted by stress, genetic predisposition, prescription and recreational drugs and even poor diet.   Healthy fats are important building blocks of neurotransmitters and studies have shown  links between low intakes of omega-3 fatty acids and depression.

Endorphins : Endorphins are feel-good chemicals secreted by our brain that block our pain sensors and stimulate a sense of euphoria.  Foods that has been shown to increase endorphins include sweet foods, foods rich in fat and, famously, chocolate.  Other healthier sources of endorphins include spicy foods, in particular foods featuring chili peppers.  Sex and vigorous exercise are also a great way to stimulate the production of these feel-good chemicals.

Satiety :  Finally, satiety – or how satisfied we are by our meal – can impact mood.  After a huge meal, blood is shunted away from the brain to the stomach and digestive organs to aid in digestion.  The result?   The sluggishness that occurs post-feast.  The more fat a a meal (think cheese burger and fried) the longer it takes food to leave the stomach and the longer you may feel drowsy or dopey.   On the flip side, meals that are high in processed carbs aren’t a great idea either.  These sugars leave the digestive system quickly and hit the blood stream like a freight train, followed by an inevitable crash and need for another sweet snack.

So, how can we use this information to help us feel better?  Here are some “Mood Management Munchie” tips for better brain chemistry through eating!

1.  Meals that have a balanced combination of protein, carbohydrate and healthy fat are the best choice for an even keel and balanced mood.

2.  Make sure your diet has ample sources of omega-3 fatty acids as these are chemical building blocks for NTs and other important regulatory hormones.  Sources of omega-3s include fatty fish, walnuts, flax seed, scallops, beans, winter and summer squash and romain lettuce.  Because  women who are trying to conceive are encouraged to limit their consumption of fatty fish, you may also want to consider an omega-3 supplement.

3.  For extra snap before an interview or big presentation eat a moderate sized meal (400-500 calories) that is rich in lean protein and complemented with whole grains or try a salad with avocado, walnuts and lean protein on top.

4. If you’re over-stimulated at bed time and need to calm down, try drinking 8 oz of whole milk sweetened with a small amount (1/2 teaspoon) of honey or agave nectar.  Milk is a good source of tryptophan, an amino acid building block of serotonin, and the small amount of sugar will stimulate the quick absorption of tryptophan into the blood and brain, thus sweeping you away to sleepy land.  Add a shake of cinnamon if you want to improve blood sugar regulation. If you are avoiding dairy, you can use almond milk to make this bedtime treat as almonds do have a healthy amount of tryptophan.

5.  For an endorphin boost, try spicy salsa as a condiment or nibble a piece of 70% cocoa chocolate for dessert.  Then go have sex – tee hee!