Updated: Nov 26, 2020
What's interesting is that for many years, I did not fully acknowledge the connection between my mood and the food I was consuming.
Throughout my years in university, I constantly experienced brain fog, tiredness and just constant mood swings. I thought that was just me, my personality, just who I am. However, reflecting back on my diet during that time - I was deprived of good-quality nutrition. I’d often skip breakfast. Lecture snacking consisted of chocolates, cupcakes and crisps. Lunch food were burgers, chips and unfulfilled sandwiches. And of course, somewhere in between there was the sugar filled syrups in my coffee. Thankfully, I had mama’s home cooked dinner to come back home to, what a blessing!
Fast forward years later, I am on a journey that is helping me become more aware and helping me understand how my mood can easily get affected by food. I understand that daily bad food choices can affect blood sugar fluctuations, nutritional imbalances, and without a steady source of fuel from the foods I eat, my mind and body won’t function optimally.
This article will discuss a few tips to optimise our mood through nutrition.
Nutrition provides the building blocks and the fuel for our brain, as well as our body. Our mental wellbeing is very complex and it depends on many factors such as toxic burden, sleep, nutrients, gut health, inflammation, trauma, or exposure to microorganisms and radiation. These aspects influence our physiology, which is also affected by genetics and an individual’s attitude and beliefs.
The key insight is that your brain is an organ that’s connected to everything else happening in our body.
Optimising our brain starts with optimising our body first.
1. Balancing blood glucose levels
Balancing blood glucose levels prevents the development of hypoglycaemia (low blood glucose) and/or insulin resistance (and conversely to increase insulin sensitivity), which are central to improving mood. Hypoglycaemia can cause feelings of anxiety and confusion. High blood glucose, on the other hand, can cause fatigue and low moods (1).
Ways to balance blood glucose levels:
Consume a protein source with every meal and snack. This helps normalise insulin secretion and reduces cravings (2,3).
Minimise the consumption of refined carbohydrates, such as pastries, breads, pastas, chocolates, sugary drinks and sweets to minimise dips and spikes in blood glucose levels.
Consume complex carbohydrates such as whole grains (e.g. brown rice, oats, quinoa and sweet potatoes), beans, lentils, fruits and vegetables, which help stabilise blood glucose levels since they are high in fibre and are nutrient dense.
Exercise to increase insulin sensitivity by acting directly on muscle metabolism and by assisting in weight management (4, 5, 6)
Get adequate sleep. Poor sleeping habits and a lack of rest affect blood glucose levels and insulin sensitivity. They can increase appetite and promote weight gain (7)
Control stress levels as chronic stress is linked to a greater risk of insulin resistance (8).
Sprinkle some cinnamon on foods as it may have the ability to reduce blood glucose levels and increase insulin sensitivity (9).
Check out this article here for more in depth information about blood glucose levels.
2. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Adequate healthy dietary fats (more importantly, omega-3) are important for our brain health. Omega 3 reduces inflammation as it down regulates the inflammatory response in the body and in the brain, which can be a key driver to poor mental wellbeing (11).
It also plays an important role in supporting cell membrane health, which is essential for optimal cell signalling in the brain (10). In order for neurotransmitters to communicate properly with cells, their membranes need to be receptive and ready to receive and transmit signals.
A good rule of thumb is to get 3 portions of oily fish in your diet on a weekly basis.
Rich omega 3 sources can include:
If eating fish isn’t an option, there are many plant-based sources of omega 3 such as:
Aim to have a serving of any of these on a daily basis to make sure you’re getting optimal amounts of omega 3.
3. Optimising gut health
Our gut has a complex network of nerves in it that communicate directly with our brain. A number of studies have shown that people with various mental health issues have different species of bacteria in their guts, compared to healthy people. This suggests that the gut microbiome may affect brain health (16 - 18).
Friendly bacteria in the gut plays an important role in protecting the tissue in our gut that contains these nerves, which have a direct impact on brain activity. Maintaining balance between friendly and pathogenic bacteria is essential for overall health, as well as mental health. A good way of keeping the not-so-friendly bugs at bay is by integrating prebiotics and probiotics into your diet frequently. Prebiotics and probiotics are essential to gut health and mental health.
Prebiotics are carbohydrates that humans cannot digest, but bacteria in our guts can. Examples of prebiotics include:
Several studies show evidence for reduced feelings of anxiety and improved aspects of well-being after taking probiotics (12 -14). Probiotic-rich food include fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut and kefir, which all contain healthy bacteria, mainly Lactobacilli. They can also reduce the amount of disease-causing species in the gut.
Antioxidants help by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress as those are the key factors that can contribute to cognitive decline.
Berries, for example, have been shown to have strong antioxidant capacity, as it improves communication between brain cells, and increases plasticity which helps brain cells form new connections, boosting learning and memory (19).
Vitamin E has also been implicated in cognitive performance, as low blood levels of vitamin E were associated with poor memory performance in older individuals (20). Vitamin E is abundant in nuts, green leafy vegetables and fortified cereals, and has been shown to reduce inflammation and delaying age-related neurodegenerative diseases (20,21).
Antioxidant rich foods include: berries, grapes, curcumin (turmeric), dark chocolate, green tea, carrots, pumpkins, nuts and seeds.
Aside from nutrition, mental wellbeing is really dependent on many other factors, such as lifestyle, sleep, exercise and genetics, so it’s important to take all of these into consideration on your journey to improving mood and mental wellbeing.
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