Boosting mood with food

I’ve been asked to talk about depression, and it’s a serious issue. Let me point out right away that I am not a mental health expert or counsellor. I’ve been asked to comment from a nutritional perspective; indeed, that is the only area which I have any experience in. From SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder, or “winter blues”, which I have been affected by in the past), through to people living full-time with this often misunderstood mental illness, there is a broad spectrum of effects that it can produce. Depression can affect anyone at any time; often the people you least expect. Many of you might have friends affected by it; I certainly do. And it isn’t enough to say to them “cheer up, everything will be fine”.

So, what can we do to boost our chances of feeling happy? It comes down to, nutritionally, what we put in and what we avoid, as well as getting active (one of the best ways to boost your mood that there is), and changing your mindset/peer group/perceptions. In this article I am just focusing on a few suggestions of what to add to your diet, and what to avoid. This is by no means a comprehensive list; more of an introduction. Make sure you exercise too, because research has shown that it’s much more effective at overcoming mild to moderate depression than the use of prescription drugs. And if you’re an SAD person like I was, try full-spectrum lighting in the home (and, if you can, workplace), and if you get the chance, go on holiday somewhere sunny in the winter. For some summer inspiration and feel-good food, why not join my next retreat?

Food to avoid
Sugar. Sugar and processed carbohydrates are an absolute no-no for so many reasons, not least of which messing with your mood. If your blood sugar is out of whack you’ll feel dreadful, as well as prematurely age yourself and weaken your bones, tendons and ligaments. Sugar interferes with the production of serotonin, one of your happy hormones. Ditch the sugar and feel better fast!

Red meat. There will still be people who tell you that red meat is good for you because of its protein content. Never mind that we can’t access most of that protein because it is denatured and coagulated by the high-temperature cooking process. In an article published in the journal Medical Hypotheses in 2012, the authors put forward the suggestion that pro-inflammatory cytokines (bad molecules basically), which form as a result of eating diets high in red and processed meat, dairy products and having insufficient vegetable intake, are linked to the increased risk of depression seen in numerous other studies.

Bad fats. Your brain is made of fat, as well as your cell membranes. If you are eating fried food, cooked vegetable fats and, even worse, trans-fats, your cells, including your brain, will not function properly. It’s because your ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fats will be badly wrong as a result of these food choices. Simple as that.

Alcohol. Yes, I know it makes a lot of people feel better initially. But then it will make you feel a whole lot worse. It interferes with your blood sugar balance and stops your brain working properly. And then there’s the hangover. It’s never worth it – ditch alcohol and see how much better you feel after a few days or weeks.

Foods that boost mood
Anything that is high in tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid that can be converted to serotonin (also known as 5-hydroxytryptamine, or 5-HT). Classically the answer comes back as turkey being the best food source, although it actually isn’t – that honour goes to sea lion kidneys, a favourite, as I understand, of the Inuit populations. However, since I advocate a plant-based diet, that’s off the menu. Sea vegetables and algae are excellent plant sources, and so is spinach. Sesame seeds and tahini are good sources as well, as are hemp seeds. No need to go native in the arctic.

Probiotics. Your friendly bacteria make up more of you than you do. As I state in my book The Whole Body Solution, most of the DNA in your body is not yours. In my forthcoming book The Fatigue Solution (available to pre-order now) you can read all about how a good probiotic level can boost your serotonin production and make you feel happier and more energetic. What’s not to like? Just make sure you get your probiotics from capsules, not those dairy-based drinks that are advertised everywhere. The reason? They usually contain only one strain of gut bacteria, and very frequently lots of sugar as well, negating any potential benefits.

Blue-green algae and other good sources of omega 3 fats. These help your brain to work better. Blue green algae also contain a phytonutrient called phenylethylamine (PEA), the consumption of which has been linked to the release of endorphins – those happy brain chemicals that are also involved in “runner’s high”, for all my fellow runners out there. Try E3Live Brain On for the best effects. You’ll also hear that PEA is present in chocolate. Yes, it is. But go for the algae instead, since practically all chocolate is full of sugar (even the dark stuff). More about how to feed the brain here.

Onions. Yes, really. Japanese researchers suggested in a paper published in 2008 that onions exerted an “antidepressant-like activity”. Since onions are good for heart health too, it’s worth adding them to your soups and salads.

Vitamin D. Researchers have been looking into the correlation between depression and low vitamin D levels, and the answers are interesting. Depressed people have low vitamin D status. But is this because they live in northern latitudes and suffer from SAD because they don’t get enough sun? If you don’t have adequate sun exposure, your vitamin D levels will be low, but is this cause or effect? Anecdotal evidence suggests that supplementing with vitamin D boosts mood. Since there are so many other benefits to increasing your vitamin D levels, I’d say go ahead and do it, especially if your levels are low. Ensure you take plant-based vitamin K2 with it though. This avoids the dangers of tissue calcification, which you can read about in my award-nominated book Love Your Bones.

About Max Tuck

Hippocrates Health Educator. Long term living foods vegan. Athlete, lecturer, author of four books (with the 5th coming soon) and firm advocate of healthy living.
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