Foods to lift your spirits!

I’m looking out of the window at the minute and thinking where is the summer? will it ever arrive? Also having just returned from Greece, I’m freezing and keep having to put the heating on which seems criminal for June! And what about our Vitamin D, so vital for mental and physical health? We definitely need some mood lifting food to raise a smile, so I hope the below helps:

Your feelings are generated by tiny brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. These include dopamine, serotonin and adrenaline. Neurotransmitters are responsible for dictating your mood and are greatly affected by what you eat. Serotonin is associated with a reduction in stress and tension and feelings of happiness, whereas dopamine and adrenaline have different mood effects by boosting concentration and alertness. The influence of food is extremely relevant when neurotransmitter production is considered. Amino acids found in proteins provide the raw materials needed to make neurotransmitters and a low protein diet is often at the route of neurotransmitter imbalance.

Some foods directly stimulate a neurotransmitter response for instance carbohydrates influence serotonin production and caffeine stimulates adrenaline synthesis. There are many other specific vitamins and minerals that have a powerful effect on your mood. Without proper neurotransmitter balance brain function and mood can be seriously affected. Feelings of anxiety and stress are commonplace in today’s society. The body’s stress response has not yet evolved to deal efficiently with modern life, meaning the slightest emotional stress still causes a powerful release of chemicals. Two minerals, calcium and magnesium play an important role in regulating your nervous system. By making sure you have adequate dietary intake of these two nutrients you can help yourself combat feelings associated with stress and induce calmness and relaxation.

Two particular neurotransmitters are also especially helpful. GABA restores calm after a stressful event, helping you to relax. Another called dopamine enables your body to deal with stress more efficiently, helping to reduce feelings of anxiety.

Foods to calm you down
Include dark leafy vegetables like watercress, kale, broccoli, spinach along with brown rice, almonds and walnuts, wheatgerm and sardines to top up on calcium and magnesium. To boost GABA formation include cheddar cheese, cow’s milk, chicken, turkey and eggs in your diet. For dopamine add in a few soya products like tofu, miso and soya yoghurt with peanuts, almonds and tuna.

Serotonin has received much publicity as a key factor in boosting mood and getting rid of the blues. This neurotransmitter is important to maintain feelings of happiness and positivity. There is now a huge amount of research which links reduced serotonin levels with lowered feelings of self-esteem and poor accomplishments. Serotonin is formed from the amino acid tryptophan, with the help of the ‘good’ omega-3 oil and vitamin B6. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid which means it can’t be made by the body and therefore has to be sourced from food, making the link between food and mood very relevant for this neurotransmitter.

Foods to make you happy
Cold water oily fish such as salmon and mackerel contain the good fat omega-3, helping with cell function and production of serotonin. To boost serotonin increase tryptophan rich foods like cashew nuts, bananas, figs, cheese, milk and turkey.
Avocadoes, lentils and bananas all contain high levels of B6, helping with conversion of tryptophan into the necessary serotonin. B-vitamins can’t be stored in the body so it’s essential that you get a daily to up.

Food intolerances have gained much recognition in the last few years. Different to a classic allergy, food intolerances are harder to detect and common culprits include wheat and dairy products. It’s easy to allow these foods to feature as part of your daily diet. For most people symptoms of food intolerances are experienced as digestive imbalance but for some people this isn’t the case and their symptoms are expressed via changes in mood with increased anxiety, irritability, anger, frustration and palpitations.

If you are quick to blow a fuse then it may be worth checking to see how much wheat you eat each day. Wheat is one food that has been linked to changes in mood since it is thought that it can create interference with neurotransmitter production and function. To see if this is true for you, cut all wheat out of your diet for 4 weeks and see if this has a positive affect on your mood.

Another factor in anxiety and anger is caffeine, consumed in high amounts by many people. The stimulatory effect of this substance causes your adrenal glands to release adrenaline and cortisol, the two stress hormones. The purpose of these hormones is to prepare us for acute situations by heightening our senses. This explains the agitated feeling you experience when you drink a lot of coffee.

Food alternatives to wheat, dairy and caffeine
Good bread alternatives include oat cakes, rice cakes and rye bread. Swap wheat based breakfast cereals to an oat or corn based one and swap biscuits and cakes for flapjacks and wheat free snack bars. Swap pasta for potatoes, rice or any other wheat free grains. Alternative grains to wheat include rice, millet, quinoa, corn and buckwheat. All the grains can be bought in most supermarkets, and are available in pasta and bread form, available in health shops and some supermarkets.
Soya yogurt, milk and cheeses are widely available and are good replacements for dairy. Rice and oat milk are also good non cow’s milk options. Caffeine is found primarily in coffee and tea, but also some carbonated drinks and chocolate. Instead, opt for herbal teas.

Although much of the focus relating to mood has been on the role of neurotransmitters, there are other dietary factors that are just as important. Avoiding the sugar ‘rollercoaster’ by learning how to control your blood sugar levels is a great way to lessen depression. Cut back on highly refined and sugar rich foods which create a surge in blood sugar that gives a burst of energy which is then followed by an all time low in both mood and energy. Your brain needs a constant supply of sugar for energy and by eating foods that cause this rollercoaster effect you disrupt brain function and neurotransmitter balance which results in poor mood stability. By focusing on foods that release sugar slowly and consistently into the blood stream like complex carbohydrates and by eating protein with each meal and snack you can start to change and lift your mood.

Foods to beat the blues
Complex carbohydrates have a slower release of sugar so include wholegrains, fruit and vegetables, lentils and beans. Replace your white refined foods with the wholegrain alternative – brown rice, granary bread, wholewheat pasta. Include some form of good quality protein at every meal, especially breakfast helps to stabilise blood sugar and up your production of serotonin. Increase your intake of oily fish which contain the omega-3 fats needed for proper brain function these have been shown to aid mood and concentration. Increase your intake of zinc rich foods including fish, nuts and seeds since zinc is needed to help make serotonin.

For some people, good quality sleep can be hard to come by. Modern life can be stressful and lead to a disruption of the neurotransmitters and hormones responsible for helping you sleep. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid found in poultry which your body converts the neurotransmitter serotonin and then on into the hormone melatonin. This hormone is responsible for regulating your body clock and sleep and studies have linked low melatonin levels with insomnia. If you have a busy mind stopping you from relaxing and falling into sleep then it’s time to increase the mineral magnesium which has a reputation for being a wonderful mind and muscle relaxant. Magnesium also helps the body cope with stress and it can be useful for reducing anxiety.

Foods to help you fall asleep
Turkey is one of the highest sources of tryptophan. Including some in your evening meal can help bring about sleep. Halibut, an oily fish is also rich in tryptophan providing another good evening meal staple. Magnesium rich foods include dark green leafy vegetables, lettuce, sweet potato, beetroot, bananas and nuts. Try to include these in your evening meal to help with relaxation and serotonin production.

Having caffeine late at night is stimulating and produces adrenaline. This increases anxiety and alertness, the last thing you want before trying to nod off. Don’t become protein deficient this will mean that you don’t get enough amino acids to generate healthy levels of neurotransmitters to maintain a balanced mood. Eat plenty of fresh vegetables and whole grains in order to get plenty of the vitamins and minerals needed to convert the amino acids into necessary neurotransmitters. Snack on nuts and seeds which are high in calcium and magnesium, the two minerals which help to calm the nervous system and maintain a calm mood. Replace refined, sugary and ‘white’ foods with wholegrain options to help keep blood sugar levels balanced and prevent an energy and mood rollercoaster from taking effect. Reduce stimulants such as cigarettes and caffeine to help steady your nervous system.

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