It is commonly accepted that our diet has an effect on our physical health. Media and social media are constantly bombarding us with the latest diets we need to try in order to get our bodies in the ‘perfect’ shape. Less talked about, however, is the effect our diet has on our mental health. While we may attribute our irritability, mood swings and difficulty concentrating to other stressors in life, our diet may have a big part to play in causing these symptoms.
If we take a minute to think about it, I’m sure we’ve all experienced how food can affect our mood. You might feel sluggish after grabbing a greasy burger, or energized to start your day after a morning smoothie. The science of food’s effect on mood is based on this: Dietary changes can bring about changes in our brain structure, which can then alter our behaviour. By incorporating foods shown to bring about positive brain changes, we can enhance our well-being. Below are a list of these good mood foods:
Oily fish such as salmon or tuna contain Omega-3 and vitamin D. These help to boost dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain. Low levels of serotonin are linked with depression, while dopamine is a “reward” chemical that the brain releases in response to pleasurable experiences.
Oats are an effective mood booster. This is because they slowly release energy into our bloodstream rather than by a quick rush that soon dips. This helps to keep your blood sugar and mood stable.
Leafy green vegetables – such as spinach or broccoli- contain important B vitamins. Deficiencies in B vitamins have been linked to depression and serotonin production can actually be hindered by low B vitamin levels.
Brazil nuts are one of the best sources of the mineral selenium. In recent years, people have been consuming less selenium, but eating just three Brazil nuts a day can provide your recommended daily amount (RDA). Studies have shown increased depression, irritability, anxiety and tiredness in people with low selenium levels.
Bananas contain dopamine, a natural reward chemical that boosts your mood. They’re also rich in B vitamins, including vitamin B6, which help to soothe your nervous system, and magnesium, another nutrient associated with positive mood.
Berries like blueberries and blackberries contain antioxidants which help produce dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical that is critical to memory function and mood.
Early studies found saffron to have effects comparable to antidepressant medications. Researchers believe that the spice works by “the same mechanism as Prozac,” helping to make the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin more available to the brain.
Eating a small amount of dark chocolate every day can reduce feelings of stress. A recent study by Nestle found that, over just two weeks, this helped to reduce stress hormones among people who were highly stressed. Experts believe it could be thanks to the antioxidants found in chocolate.
The first step is to assess your current eating patterns and look at how this effects your mood. For one week, keep a food diary. Write down everything you eat, and reflect on how your food choices affect your mood. For example, after a takeaway at lunch, you may find yourself lagging and sluggish for the afternoon. Alternatively after a healthy breakfast you feel energised and set up for the day ahead.
At the end of the week, take a step back and evaluate. Firstly, are you noticing a pattern between your food choices and your mood? Secondly, when seeing your diet in black and white, can you spot nutritional deficiencies?
By incorporating these superfoods into your diet, you will experience increased energy, reduced anxiety, irritability, tiredness and fatigue, and a boost in self-esteem and confidence.
Seamus O’Donnell (BA, MSc)