Eat yourself happy
For almost a year now, we have been living in trying times. After months of more or less severe lockdowns, limited contact with others, and nothing but Netflix for distraction and entertainment – not to mention the fear of infection for ourselves and loved ones – even the most resilient among us are feeling the impact the pandemic has had on our mental health.
Obviously, food is not the answer to any of those issues, but did you know that what you eat directly impacts how well you cope? It seems hard to believe, but – with all things being equal – malnutrition in itself can cause depression and anxiety. Something as simple as a vitamin deficiency, namely vitamin B12, is enough to cause depression.[i] The presence or absence of nutrients affects memory and learning, thinking, emotions, and behaviour. Of course, the reasons for depression are usually more complicated, but this serves as an example of how important optimum nutrition is for mental health.
Anything that happens within our body ultimately comes down to chemistry. For nerves to fire, for the brain to function, restoring sleep and a stable mood, chemical reactions must happen all the time. For that to be possible, we need to provide the required chemicals. So, what is, nutritionally speaking, the stuff of happiness? Here are my top 3:
- Balance Blood Sugar
If you do nothing else, do this. It is one of the most effective and quickest ways to prevent mood swings and improve mood overall. Although we feel that sugar makes us happy, it doesn’t really. There may be a moment of bliss when it hits our taste buds and even a brief energy boost as the sugar hits our bloodstream, but it is downhill from there. Sugar, sweets and refined carbohydrates raise blood sugar levels fast and high. As excess sugar in the bloodstream is severely damaging for blood vessels and nerves, removing it as quickly as possible is paramount.
This is where insulin comes in. It moves as much sugar into the body cells as they can take. They use it to make energy – hence the energy boost. Some of the sugar that’s left is converted into starch and stored in the liver for emergencies. The bulk of the sugar, however, is converted into fat and stored around the middle. In a healthy (non-insulin-resistant) person, insulin is highly effective and will cause blood sugar to drop quickly. A lot of sugar means a lot of insulin, a lot of insulin means a fast and steep drop which more often than not overshoots the mark, causing low blood sugar. This is when you will feel the symptoms of the blood sugar roller coaster: tiredness, difficulty concentrating, irritability, cravings.
Keeping your blood sugar stable, avoiding such peaks and troughs, helps to stabilise your mood as well as cravings and hunger. Quitting sugar is the first step, closely followed by excluding, or at least reducing, refined carbohydrates – think potatoes, pasta, white rice, baked goods and the like. The starches they contain very quickly break down into sugar and will then drive your blood sugar up just as much. Complex carbohydrates, such as oats, brown rice, and whole grains such as quinoa, millet or buckwheat, release their sugars much more slowly. Just a little insulin is therefore sufficient, and a steep blood sugar drop avoided. If you always combine complex carbs with protein, that will slow down the sugar release even further. Protein keeps you fuller for longer, avoiding that ‘hangry’ feeling, but it also has other mood benefits (see below).
- Healthy Fats
The human brain is nearly 60% fat. Fat is required not just to build and maintain the brain but for brain function, too. It forms the basis for many neurotransmitters, the messenger chemicals of our nervous system. Not surprising then that we need to eat fat. In particular, we require the essential omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which represent 35% of the fat in our brain.[ii] At a push, the body can make all other fats, but “essential” in nutrition always describes nutrients the body cannot make. They must always come from food.
Deficiency in omega-6 fats is rare. They occur in grains, nuts and seeds as well as meat and dairy from cattle fed on grains. Omega-3, however, is somewhat harder to come by. Good sources are flaxseeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts and pumpkin seeds, grass-fed beef and dairy, and, of course, oily fish. There seem to be plenty of plant sources of omega-3, but sadly the type of omega-3 they contain is not sufficient. Plants contain it in a form the human body first has to convert to turn them into the brain-relevant fats EPA and DHA – and that conversion does not work very well. If you are vegetarian, vegan, or simply do not like fish, you may require an EPA/DHA supplement. If you would like to know your fatty acid status, give me a call, and we can talk about how you can get tested.
Fatty acid composition aside, an almost even bigger problem is fat phobia. Years of misinformation and outdated nutritional guidelines have caused a fear of fat that is not justified and may have done a lot of harm. Fat does not make us fat or sick; in fact, the lack of it does. Avoiding fat inevitably leads to an increase in carbohydrates. As discussed above, a diet high in carbs has some serious drawbacks.
We need fat to be healthy and happy, so make sure to stock up on healthy fats: oily fish, grass-fed dairy – including butter -, avocados, olives, nuts, seeds and their unrefined oils are excellent sources. Avoid man-made vegetable oils – such as sunflower, soya, and corn oil – which are suspected of contributing to depression.[iii] Although the jury is still out, why not stick with tried and tested natural fats? Humans have consumed natural fats like coconut oil, olive oil, and animal fats for thousands of years without negative consequences.
- Make sure to include protein
The protein we eat is broken down into its smallest parts, amino acids, during digestion. Those amino acids are then put together again to create whatever protein is required, according to the blueprints supplied by our DNA. Amino acids are the building blocks of life. The proteins created from them may be used to make tissues, hormones, neurotransmitters and enzymes. They are used for transport, signalling and chemical reactions. Dopamine – the ‘pleasure neurotransmitter’ – is made from the amino acid tyrosine. Serotonin – the ‘happy neurotransmitter’ – is made from tryptophan. If either of these two amino acids is missing, the deficiency will be felt as low mood or aggression.[iv]
The main protein foods are meat, fish, seafood, eggs, dairy products, pulses, nuts and seeds, although most plant foods, do contain some protein. Animal proteins contain all amino acids – including the eight essential ones – which is why they are referred to as ‘complete proteins’. However, if you combine grains and pulses – not even necessarily in the same meal, but the same day -, you can still get all the amino acids, even on a plant-based diet.
Tyrosine is not an essential amino acid. The body can make it but needs phenylalanine, which is found in soya beans, cottage cheese, meat, fish, poultry, butter beans, chickpeas and sesame seeds. Tryptophan, another essential amino acid, is found in poultry, soya beans, cottage cheese, beef, lamb, liver, fish, lentils and sesame seeds. In the presence of other amino acids, tryptophan can have a hard time crossing into the brain. Insulin significantly raises its chances to get there, so always have your tryptophan-rich foods with a small amount of complex carbs, e. g. an oatcake or a small serving of fruit.
While amino acids are required for a good mood and restful sleep, they can’t do it independently. Micronutrients – in particular B vitamins – are needed too, so amino acids can do their job. The good news is that B vitamins are ubiquitous and not difficult to come by – as long as you eat real food. Real food means ingredients: meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruit, grains, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices. It’s food that is not or only minimally processed, e.g. cooked, dried, blended or fermented, but not ultra-processed like junk foods, ready meals, sweets and snack foods. If you want to give your body some TLC and your mood a real boost, eat real foods. They contain all the chemicals our brain needs to perform at its best.
Chang CY, Ke DS, Chen JY (2009): Essential fatty acids and human brain. Acta Neurol Taiwan. 2009 Dec;18(4):231-41.
Singh M (2005): Essential fatty acids, DHA and human brain. Indian J Pediatr. 2005 Mar;72(3):239-42.
Chianese R, Coccurello R, Viggiano A, et al (2018): Impact of Dietary Fats on Brain Functions. Curr Neuropharmacol. 2018 Aug; 16(7): 1059–1085.
[i] Penninx BW, Guralnik JM, Ferrucci L, et al (2000): Vitamin B(12) deficiency and depression in physically disabled older women: epidemiologic evidence from the Women’s Health and Aging Study. Am J Psychiatry. 2000 May;157(5):715-21.
[ii] Melo HM, Santos LE, Ferreira ST (2019): Diet-Derived Fatty Acids, Brain Inflammation, and Mental Health. Front Neurosci. 2019; 13: 265.
[iii] Berger ME, Smesny S, Kim S-W, et al (2017): Omega-6 to omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid ratio and subsequent mood disorders in young people with at-risk mental states: a 7-year longitudinal study. Transl Psychiatry. 2017 Aug; 7(8): e1220.
[iv] Sathyanarayana Rao TS, Asha MR, Ramesh BN, et al (2008): Understanding nutrition, depression and mental illnesses. Indian J Psychiatry. 2008 Apr-Jun; 50(2): 77–82.