Most of us only listen to our stomachs when it’s time to eat, but there are some things you need to know about your brain chemistry and your diet that can truly impact your health, appetite, satiety and most importantly, your mood. When it comes to eating right, it’s not just about your waistline, or your appetite. You should also consider how what you eat plays a part in your brain chemistry. Certain factors in our diets can leave us either anxious, tired, depressed or irritable, or they can leave us energized, focus, positive and happy. Consider these important tips about your brain chemistry and your diet, and next time you pick up your fork to eat, be sure to choose a smart meal for both your brain and your body.
1. Essential Fatty Acids
One of the first things you should know about brain chemistry and your diet is that our brains are comprised of 60% fat. That’s right, though you put a negative connotation on the word “fat”, your brain is over half fat, meaning you need essential fatty acids in your diet to help your brain function. When eating your meals, don’t fear fat, but don’t feel the need to go overboard either. When you include the right fats, a little goes along way. Just be sure to choose the “golden” souces of fat, as I call them. These are omega 3 fats which come from: wild fish, raw walnuts, hemp seeds, flax seeds and chia seeds, along with monounsaturated fats from raw almonds, avocados and raw cashews. Just 2 tbsp. is all you need. Essential fatty acids have been proven to lower depression, improve energy, improve digestion and improve heart health. Don’t go without them!
2. Careful with Caffeine
Caffeine is a tricky little subject. As long as you’re careful about how much caffeine you consume, just a bit can actually improve your focus. This might come in the form of a cup of coffee in the morning (two max). Coffee is also rich in B vitamins, along with magnesium, which are both important nutrients for your brain as I'll show you later on. Another way to get a healthy dose of caffeine is by having green tea. Green tea has less caffeine than coffee, and is also full of the mood-boosting amino acid, L-theanine. L-theanine gives your brain a calming approach, while the caffeine keeps you alert. Another option is to have pure dark chocolate in the form of 100% cacao or cacao nibs. There is a little caffeine in chocolate, along with other natural stimulants that boost mood and ward off depression. Cacao is actually a wonderful food to help you focus as well.
Diets insufficient in magnesium can cause a person to be anxious, moody, depressed, and even tired. Magnesium is a critical mineral found in abundance in leafy greens, nuts and seeds, dark chocolate, wild fish, Greek yogurt and whole grains. Be careful with whole grains though. Some studies show gluten-containing grains actually depress mental function due to lectins and gluten that prevent absorption of nutrients and create barriers to the brain that prevent serotonin from entering the brain. Serotonin is the feel good hormone that is generated as chemical response to the foods we eat, our sleep and much in between. What you eat can either increase serotonin production, or inhibit it. Sufficient magnesium content is a great way to calm your nerves, and also lower anxiety and irritability. The best sources are those above, which will energize you naturally, yet also give you a steady, calming mood.
4. Say No to Sugar
One thing you should know about sugar is that it might make you happy when you eat it, but I promise, an hour later, you’ll be craving more to get that same “hit” of happiness. Why? Sugar is a drug, pure and simple. It’s been proven to be just as addictive as cocaine, and even heroin. Sugar depresses your immune system, creates acne, weight gain, diabetes, headaches, fatigue, and food addictions. Sugar also messes with your mood, even though you crave it. What happens when you eat sugar is like a snowball effect. One craving leads to another, and another, because if you don’t keep eating it, you’ll get sad from the drop in a neurotransmitter known as dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical response in our body that happens when we do certain activities that might make us happy, but wear off fast. In fact, dopamine is quickly depleted from the body right after eating sugar, and a person has to eat more and more to get that dopamine hit. Avoid sugar, and avoid the addiction. For the best sweet treats, eat berries, which are low glycemic, along with bananas which are a natural sweet treat.
5. Triumph with Tryptophan
At this point, you may be wondering, if dopamine is so bad, why do our bodies produce it? Well, our bodies produce many, many chemicals, as a response to something, yet they also generate an action in our bodies as well. Not all chemicals are beneficial all the time, such as cortisol, the stress hormone. Dopamine depletion can cause anxiety and depression and the best way to combat that, is to eat more foods rich in tryptophan. Tryptophan is an amino acid found in certain foods that actually helps serotonin ( that happy hormone), enter the brain. It isn’t an addictive high like dopamine is. Instead it’s more of a calm sense of happiness, not a “I have to have more now!” type of response. Tryptophan is rich in foods such as turkey, salmon, tuna, trout, bananas, pumpkin and pumpkin seeds, walnuts, almonds, chicken and oats. Eating more of these foods ensures that tryptophan enters the brain, so you don’t feel the need to get “high” of dopamine inducing foods, such as sugar, trans fats, animal saturated fats and too much caffeine.
I bet you already know that calcium is so important for your bones, but I bet you had no idea how essential it is for your mood. Calcium is crucial to a steady, calm mood. In fact, food sources of calcium are one of the best things to eat when your need to rest, or calm yourself down. Calcium offers a calming sensation to the brain, and most calcium sources are also rich in tryptophan, the important amino acid we just talked about. Calcium quells anxiety and also halts cravings. Be sure to get your calcium from the best sources, which include leafy greens, chia seeds, organic dairy, and fortified non-dairy options.
7. B Vitamins
Another important vitamin you need to consider when you eat are B vitamins. B vitamins 6 and 12 are both very important for a healthy mood, and energy levels. Vitamin B6 offers a steady energizing, and very calming effect to the brain. I find it works fantastic for anxiety or restlessness, but doesn’t make me tired. Vitamin B12 is crucial for concentration and focus, along with energy and preventing anemia. Be sure to eat foods rich in B vitamins such as salmon, tuna, eggs, avocados, pumpkin, squash, turkey, leafy greens, nuts and seeds, gluten-free grains like quinoa, wild rice, and amaranth, plus Greek yogurt. All of these are excellent sources of both B6 and B12 and will calm you and energize you at the same time.
8. Meal Prep for Your Mood
When you sit down to eat, be sure you’re doing three things: not eating too much sugar from any source, natural or not, eating enough protein that will have all the amino acids your brain needs, and that you have some healthy fats included. Carbs are also fine to eat, so long as they’re complex. My favorite sources are pumpkins, sweet potatoes and squash which are great for your weight and glycemic levels.
9. Ditch the Junk
It should be noted that junk food, processed food and fast food create depression, food addictions and anxiety. They do not belong in a healthy diet, nor are they needed. Fill up on whole foods, and if you need some healthy tips or recipes, just check out our health, diet and food sections here on All Women Stalk. We’ve got some fabulous tips for you!
What’s your best mood food that keeps you calm, happy and energized? I’d love to hear about it and am always looking for a new recipe!