How to improve yours and get happy without eating cake

Whether we’ve experienced depression or not, we’ve all experienced changes in moods.  If you’re female, you may well have put these changes down to hormones, but have you ever considered what you’ve been eating, and how you’ve been eating it?

There is obviously a connection between mood and food.  Who hasn’t splurged on chocolate or ice cream to make themselves feel better?  But diet is not usually the first thing people think of when they are feeling low.

As I tell my clients all the time, the body’s systems do not operate in isolation.  It’s not as simple as getting fuel from food for the the brain so it can make serotonin and we’re happy.  There are many more elements at play.  

Foods to include

First of all there are certain nutrients that are very important for brain function, mood and energy.  If there are low levels of these in the diet mental health may be compromised.  

Here’s a guide to those nutrients and where you can find them.  

B vitamins are found in whole grains, meat, eggs and dairy products, pulses, seeds, nuts, dark leafy vegetables and fruits like bananas, avocados and citrus.  Zinc is found in seeds, chickpeas, lamb, beef, milk, seafood, eggs, pepper.  Omega 3 fats are found in oily fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel and freshly ground flax seed. For vegans, there are also omega 3 algae supplements.  Iron is found in almonds, apricots, meat, parsley and seeds.  Magnesium is found in almonds, cashews, eggs, figs, leafy greens, pulses, molasses and cocoa (chocolate!).  Vitamin D comes mainly from the action of sunlight on our skin, but also from egg yolk and sprouted seeds.  And finally, tryptophan which is needed to make serotonin (a happiness messenger, if you will) and those foods are turkey, milk, bananas, almonds and soy.  

Which foods to eat together

The next important point to make is relating to blood sugar balance. Blood sugar balance is not just for diabetes sufferers.  It’s crucial to our health and we all need to be aware of it and how eating affects it.  When refined carbohydrates (sweet things, white bread, pasta) are consumed, blood sugar shoots up and consequently it crashes down in the same dramatic way.  This can cause anxiety, mood swings, lack of concentration, irritability and tiredness.  To keep blood sugar on a more even keel, eat unrefined whole grains, plenty of fibre and include protein and healthy fats with every meal or snack.  An example of such a snack could be an oatcake with nut butter, or some seeds and dried apricots. Try not to eat carbs in isolation and don’t skip meals.

Foods to restrict

Stimulants can have a considerable impact on a person’s mood.  Coffee, tea, alcohol and energy drinks start up the adrenal response which puts us into ‘fight or flight’ mode, ready for action, and can result in anxiety, nervousness and being unable to relax.  As with blood sugar balance, when stimulants are consumed, there is a seesaw effect of being up and then being down and never reaching a nice equilibrium where we feel consistently in control and balanced in our moods.

The Secret Seven: My top nutrition tips for good moods

  1. Eat regularly and at set intervals.
  2. Eat unrefined, unprocessed whole foods as much as possible.
  3. Include protein every time you eat.
  4. Eat a wide variety of fruit and vegetables.
  5. Keep hydrated.  Around 2 litres of water a day for the average female and around 3 for the average male. 
  6. Include omega 3 fats: oily fish and flax seed.
  7. Pay attention to your digestive health.  Bloating, wind, constipation and loose stools are all signs you may need to address how your gut is functioning.  

There is currently much investigation into diet and mental health and nutritional therapy is at the forefront of potential new treatments.  The gut microbiome is a huge area of research and one recent European study in particular found that several species of gut bacteria are missing in people with depression.  I always include an assessment of digestion and gut bacteria as part of a nutritional therapy programme.  For mental health concerns (and many others), it’s now an undeniable piece of the puzzle.

This list is not exhaustive, and as I always say, everyone’s health journey has been different so some may need to focus more on some points than others, but it’s starting point, and may just help you to feel slightly less grumpy.