There is a lot of information about food and nutrition on the internet. A reader can find out about the connection between food and general health, chronic disease, living longer, weight loss and many more. But the connection between mood and food is a relatively new science and really quite fascinating.
It's widely accepted that eating our favourite foods, particularly things like chocolate and sweet desserts make us feel good. But the science behind this, and food's ability to influence feelings goes far beyond taste.
Let's take chocolate for an example, is it a good mood food purely because it's so darn delicious?
Dark chocolate in particular contains serotonin, and pre-cursers to serotonin, sending out "feel good" signals. However, the effect of consuming sweets on serotonin levels tends to be short lived, leaving us to crash down to reality. This is also why relying on sugary foods to enhance our mood can actually leave us worse than when we started. Sugar satisfies our cravings, and gives us an energy surge but it inevitably falls away, leaving you feeling bad. In addition, sugar can trigger the "reward system" in your brain- Dopamine, like a drug might, leaving you feeling worse off without it.
In general, avoiding blood sugar spikes and drops will help to keep mood swings in check. We all recall feeling "hangry" at one time or another, I often see this as a trigger
for frequent tantrums and outbursts in children. Slow releasing energy foods such as wholegrains, nuts and seeds are key to avoiding this.
Protein-rich foods, whether they be plant or animal based are also essential to a good mood. They contain amino acids for the brain to manufacture the chemicals that regulate our thoughts and emotions.
Foods containing "good fats" such as olive oil, avocado and nuts also contribute, as our brains need fatty acids to function.
A largely overlooked factor to all this is water. A person who isnt properly hydrated will struggle to concentrate and may feel sluggish.
A word on coffee- we all love it's ability to pick us up but many feel it makes them anxious or depressed, and it can have a real impact on quality of sleep, so its important to be honest with yourself about how it makes you feel.
However, I personally don't believe that this is the extent of food's power to impact our mood, or mental health. Although my initial experience with the health world was motivated by my desire to help my then 6 year old son, I did find a lot more than ingredient lists and vitamins along the way. I found my home. My calm in the storm. I found that through being forced initially to make the foods I had always bought from the supermarket myself, I developed a connection. Not just to food, but to life.
I remember dragging my son into the veggie patch to help me one evening, when he
was at his most anxious, because I just didn't know what else to do to help him. Not only did his mood brighten, but he started postulating about life and the universe in the oddly profound way only small innocent children seem to manage. I'll never forget his conclusion, that our society was going off the rails because of our disconnection with the things that humans were designed to do. He said that we are no longer growing our food, preparing our food, spending time in nature etc, all the things our ancestors were forced to do. He decided that this disconnection is what leaves us all with that feeling that something is missing. Of course you've probably heard this theory many times recently on various Netflix documentaries, but to hear it put so simply from a small child set a lot in motion for me back then. I realised that the reason I felt better when I was gardening, (which I'm not very good at), or waiting patiently for my home made yoghurt to ferment, was because I was doing what I was designed to do. For thousands of years, we needed to utilise all these skills in order to survive, and it makes sense that after only a half century or so of using them less and less, we may have retained these instincts. Perhaps its the same reason we may laugh at our male counterparts when they display their simple joy over building an addition to our house, or BBQing our dinner. We may no longer need these instincts to survive, but maybe we do need to stop ignoring them, in order to feel connected and purposeful.
Next time you feel at odds with yourself, a bit flat or anxious, why not try baking your family a cake, or plant some herbs in your back yard? The smell alone of either of these things is likely to lift your spirits, and you might find what you needed.