Food is one of the most important physiological needs, which Maslow noted as a basic need in his hierarchy of needs. We spend an average of 67 minutes every day, and nearly five years in our lifetime eating. If we spend so much time of our day and lives eating, then surely it has to cause a significant impact on our bodies.
We are aware that food is converted to energy in our body and the kind of food we eat affects our body in many ways. Our health is comprised not only of physical aspects but also emotional and mental aspects. Our diet and food consumption can impact our short-term mood, has neurological effects on our body, along with certain foods also being a contributor to mood disorders.
If humans are like computers, food is the electricity that recharges us to work. Yet, it is interesting that food is not just fuel for our body, but it also has a direct impact on our mental health and emotional well-being.
Have you found yourself getting agitated and irritable when hungry? Hunger is a primal instinct, and evolution has not changed the fact that when animals (and humans) are hungry, they look for food. Hunger is triggered when the levels of blood sugar drop in our body and the hunt for food makes animals alert and irritable when hungry.
We have also at some time or the other felt a little snooze after lunch. This indicates some effects of food on our body that go beyond the physical energy it provides.
We are aware that our brain consists of two hemispheres, and its structure can be studied by dividing it into various sections and levels. However, few of us are aware that we have a second brain, which is our gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) or more commonly called the GUT. The GI tract is home to millions and millions of bacteria which form an intestinal microbiome to digest our food and is also the producer of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. These neurotransmitters are chemical messages that facilitate conversations between the gut and the brain. Dopamine is the ‘feel good’ hormone, and serotonin is the ‘calm’ hormone. 95% of the serotonin in our body is produced in our GI tract. Both these chemicals, when secreted in the gut, are significant contributors to affecting our mood.
Nutritional psychiatry is a growing field of science that focuses on the connection between our gut and brain and studies how nutrition can affect our brain and mental health. Increasing research in this field confirms that food can cause changes in the structure and functions of the brain, along with affecting our emotions and physical functioning.
According to the World Health Organization, more than 300 million people worldwide suffer from depression which is estimated to be the world’s leading cause of disability. Suzanne Dickson, a professor at the University of Gothenburg, says: We have found that there is increasing evidence of a link between a poor diet and the worsening of mood disorders, including anxiety and depression’.
A correlation has been found between eating foods high in refined sugars, and worsening mood disorder symptoms, like depression. A study showed that teens who have the ‘lowest-quality’ diet are 80% more likely to experience depression than teens who have a high-quality diet. Not only that, the latest data from the Global Burden of Disease Study tells us that an unhealthy diet is now the leading cause of early death. In contrast, scientists report that ‘consumption of Mediterranean diet or traditional diet, that consist of vegetables, fruits, meat, fish, dairy products, can reduce the risk of suffering depression by 25% to 35%, in comparison to Western diet’.
Healthy fatty acids like omega-3s are believed to improve neurotransmitter activity by enhancing brain cell communication, brain cell plasticity, and reducing brain cell damaging inflammation. Several studies noted that fish oils high in omega-3 can help ease depression and mood disorders, and lower suicide risk.
While food alone can affect our mood, additional aspects like stress interacting with food habits can cause and worsen mood disorders and issues. Whether the stress is caused due to daily stressors or major stressors, it increases the levels of stimulating neurotransmitters like adrenaline, in our body, that overpowers other neurotransmitters. The body, while under stress, is attracted towards food habits that are not necessarily healthy, like consuming more sugar and caffeine-based foods, fast foods, sugar-like carbs, and sometimes also skipping meals. The experience of stress combined with the resultant bad eating instances can in turn put added stress on the body with excessive metabolic demands and low nutrition.
There are some good food habits that can prove positive for the body
- Breakfast like a king. As the saying goes, it is important to have a filling and scrumptious but healthy breakfast. Since it is the most important meal of the day, it is highly unadvisable to skip breakfast. Eat a protein-rich breakfast with foods like eggs, greek yogurt, black beans, peanut butter, avocados, cottage cheese, etc.
- Wholesome meals. It is essential to eat regular timely meals that include whole foods rich in protein, complex carbohydrates, healthy fats, vitamins and minerals – all the ingredients you need for making neurotransmitters. Some foods to include in your meals are dark leafy vegetables, berries, nuts and seeds, fruits like banana, oats, beans and lentils.
- Consult informative chart about nutrients that helps our body and their food source. Some foods to avoid are caffeine, alcohol, refined sugars, trans fats, and processed food like frozen dinner. Protein should be included in every meal. Instead of sticking to having three heavy meals in the day with intermittent fasting, it is recommended to have small healthy snacks every few hours in between main meals.
- Say hi to hydration. Along with ensuring the right foods, it is also vital to maintain your body’s optimum water levels. Water naturally has lithium which calms us down when irritated. It is also beneficial to consume liquids like fresh fruit juices, healthy smoothies with meals.
- Create a list of your eating habits. Keep a food diary for a few days. Write down everything you eat and the time of day you eat it. This will help you uncover your habits. For example, you might discover that you always seek a sweet snack to get you through the mid-afternoon energy slump.
Have you ever reached for chips, chocolates, or ‘comfort food’ while feeling low? Does it momentarily lift your spirits? It is because our emotions can also dictate the kind of food we eat. Low moods trigger cravings for fatty foods that fire neurotransmitters, which instantly lift our mood, but the elevated mood is short-lived.
Our emotions can also affect how we taste food. For instance, in one study, it was found that increased serotonin levels heightened the participant’s taste sensitivity to sweet and bitter tastes, while increased noradrenaline levels aggravated sensitivity to sour along with bitter tastes.
While we saw that the food we eat and our mood has effects on each other, it is found that the food we eat has dominance over how we feel rather than the other way round, and that stresses the importance of inculcating and maintaining habits of consuming healthy, nutritious foods. To ensure healthy communication between the gut and the brain, an adequate environment for good bacteria to grow needs to be created, which is possible through the consumption of nutritious foods.
Healthy food not only ensures the growth and balance of these necessary bacteria but also processes the production of neurotransmitters, which underlies the basis of how food affects our mood.
Nishtha Agarwal is a researcher and mental health advocate from India.