Thursday, January 10, 2008
In this age of Prozac, Ritalin and Zoloft, it may surprise you to know that many doctors are now turning to something a lot more basic to help control people's emotional states: food. Julia Ross, a nutritional psychologist and the author of "The Mood Cure," has been researching the relationship between food and mood for years. Ross explains that because what and how you eat affects your energy level, it influences your frame of mind. "For instance, everybody knows that you feel better when you exercise," she explains. "But people don't exercise because they're tired, and they have low energy because of their diet." Likewise, not eating well — consuming too much sugar and caffeine — may cause sleep problems; lack of sleep will in turn exacerbate anxiety and depression.
The next time you're wondering what you can do to make yourself feel better, check out your pantry before checking in with your doctor. According to Ross, a few simple tweaks to your diet may do wonders for your emotional well-being. (Of course, some people may find dietary changes are not enough to improve their mindset — see a doctor if your foul moods last for more than a few weeks.) Here's what to add to and subtract from your pantry:
Protein. "Protein is a must if you're trying to level out mood swings," says Ross. "Many people who've been trying to keep fat intake down have done so by eliminating protein, but we need protein: it helps keep our blood sugar levels balanced." Protein also contains amino acids that aid in the creation of endorphins — mood-regulating neurotransmitters — so it's essential for people suffering from stress, depression or anxiety. Ross recommends getting a full, palm-size serving of protein three times a day. Her top picks: eggs, salmon, tuna, lean beef or lamb, fruit shakes with protein powder, and cottage cheese.
Fruits and veggies. If you've ever walked through a farmer's market and felt calmed by the smells and colors that surround you, you're onto something. "Vegetables are loaded with the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that make good moods possible," says Ross. Dark-green leafy veggies — such as spinach, Swiss chard and kale — blueberries and bananas are loaded with B vitamins such as folic acid, which have been shown to help alleviate depression. "Fruits tend to be rich in vitamin B6, which your brain needs to make serotonin, a neurotransmitter that facilitates happy moods. They're also full of antioxidants, which protect the brain's cell membranes," says Ross. She recommends getting four to five one-cup servings of fruits and veggies daily; the fresher the produce, the more nutrients you get.
Nuts. Cashews and macadamia nuts are great sources of the good-for-you fat Omega 9. Omega 9 supports the brain's mood-generating activity by affecting the way in which cells are constructed, which impacts the flow of serotonin through your brain. Nuts are perfect as a snack, sprinkled on a salad or tossed into a stir-fry. Opt for raw nuts that aren't salted or coated in sugar.
Caffeine. We all know about the yo-yo affect caffeine can have on your mood — sleepy one minute, giddy the next — but many of us don't realize the role it has in affecting our overall mental health. "The mood seesaw that caffeine sets up is part of what gets you hooked," says Ross. "When you crash, you pick up more caffeine and, in the process, your own natural 'uppers' are getting depleted — just as they do when any stimulant drug is used — making you more and more dependent on caffeine." Studies have shown that caffeine inhibits the brain's levels of serotonin and melatonin, a hormone that affects our sleep cycles, as well as depleting B vitamins, vitamin C, potassium, calcium and zinc. "These depletions impact sleep quality and duration as well as your tolerance to stress. As serotonin levels are suppressed, any tendency to be depressed, irritable, obsessive, worried or fearful increases." Ross understands that it's not easy to cut caffeine out of your diet, but she suggests cutting back. "You'll get a headache, but that's nothing compared to the negative ways in which caffeine is affecting your mood cycle," she says.
Sweets. If you're looking for a radical change in your moods pronto, Ross suggests dropping processed sugar, which she dubs, along with processed flour, one of the "gruesome twosome." "Several of my clients have eliminated their moodiness by giving up sugar and white flour," she says. A recent study from Baylor College of Medicine corroborates her findings. Researchers compared the annual rate of severe depression and the annual per-capita intake of refined sugar in six countries. The countries with the highest intake of sugar — New Zealand, Canada, Germany, France, the United States and Korea — also had the highest rates of depression. While the study doesn't prove a cause-and-effect relationship, it does seem to point to the power sugar has in darkening people's moods.