Eat Yourself Happy: How Food Impacts Your Mood
Eating well is a powerful tool to increase wellbeing, physically, mentally and emotionally. What you eat not only fuels your body, but also influences your brain — including our cognitive functions (e.g. memory and decision making) and your emotions. This food-mood relationship works both ways — what you eat impacts how you feel, and how you feel influences the kind of foods you are tempted to eat.
How does food impact mood?
The brain requires a constant supply of fuel which it gets from the foods you eat. This means the more high-quality foods you eat (those containing lots of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants), the better it functions. What you eat effects how you feel in a variety of ways:
The gut-brain axis is a bidirectional link involving the autonomic nervous system, endocrine (hormone) system, and immune system, as well as the gastrointestinal tract and cognitive and emotional centres in the brain. This gut-brain axis allows your gut microbiome to influence your brain, and means that your brain influences your intestinal function.
This means that if your gut microbiome is disrupted and the balance of good and bad bacteria is impaired, it can have a knock-on effect on your cognition and mood (as well as causing other health problems such as inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, and allergies).
Practical tip: Researchers recommend taking a ‘food first’ approach to gut health to improve how you feel. This includes eating more wholefoods and reducing processed foods with chemical additives which can affect your microbiome and increase the risk of inflammation and disease.
Neurotransmitters are molecules used by the nervous system to transmit messages around the body. Neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, adrenaline and nor-adrenaline, are known to affect mood and cognition, and the nutrients found in certain foods work as precursors to these brain chemicals.
For example, the amino acid tryptophan, supports serotonin production. Disrupted tryptophan levels can lead to carbohydrate cravings and has been linked with obesity. This means that eating foods rich in tryptophan can have a positive impact on mood, cognition and overall well-being.
Practical tip: It’s recommended that healthy adults consume around 5mg/kg bodyweight of L-tryptophan per day so make sure to include plenty of tryptophan-rich foods in your diet. These include: nuts (cashews, walnuts, peanuts and almonds), seeds (sesame, pumpkin and sunflower), soybeans, spinach, milk, salmon, poultry, eggs, and wholegrain (wheat, rice and corn).
Antioxidants help to increase the availability of serotonin in the brain by protecting tryptophan from oxidation (damage) and also by increasing transport of tryptophan to the brain, therefore supporting it’s synthesis to serotonin to enhance cognition and mood.
Antioxidants also help to protect the brain from oxidative stress which can damage cells and effect mood.
Practical tip: Try to include lots of antioxidant-rich foods in your diet. These include: dark green vegetables (spinach, broccoli, kale), blueberries, grapes with dark skins, nuts, sweet potatoes, carrots, squashes, green tea, and wholegrains.
What should I eat to improve my mood?
- Include plenty of tryptophan-rich foods in your diet e.g. nuts, seeds, soybeans, spinach, milk, salmon, poultry, eggs, and wholegrains
- Include lots of antioxidant-rich foods in your diet e.g. dark green vegetables, blueberries, sweet potatoes, carrots, squashes, green tea, and wholegrains
- Reduce your intake of processed foods with chemical additives to enhance gut health
- Include pro-biotic rich foods to re-balance your microbiome e.g. yogurt
- Add fermented foods into your diet to support a healthy gut e.g. kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles
- Pay attention to how different foods make you feel (straight afterwards and the next day) and reduce intake of anything that gives you brain-fog, leaves you feeling low on energy, or has a negative effect on your mood
Naidoo, U. (2018) Gut Feelings: How Food Affects Your Mood. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/
Selhub, E. (2015). Your Brain on Food. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/
Strasser, B., Gostner, J. M., & Fuchs, D. (2016). Mood, food, and cognition: role of tryptophan and serotonin. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care, 19(1), 55-61.