You are what you eat. It’s a phrase we hear all the time, and in essence it’s a fairly simple concept. Food is your fuel, and it will always have an impact on how well your mind and body functions. But I’m sure it also comes as no surprise that our bodies are far more complex than this simple expression suggests.
When it comes to supporting our health, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the whirlwind of information out there telling you what you should and shouldn’t be eating. However, by making a conscious decision to look more closely at what you consume, you can go a long way to gaining a deeper understanding of how those decisions affect your neurochemistry.
But does what we consume really affect our mood?
In short, absolutely. Take coffee, for example. For some, a morning brew helps clear the mind and sharpen focus, while for others it leaves them a jittery mess.
The reason for this is that coffee stimulates the stress hormone, cortisol. In turn, cortisol activates your sympathetic nervous system – your “fight or flight” response. In reality, we are biologically hardwired to produce this response when under a real or perceived threat. Stress when being chased by a lion – fair enough. But stress from drinking a cup of coffee? That’s a form of anxiety, and for some it can be really debilitating. It could also be easily avoided by simply switching to a different beverage of choice.
Stress when being chased by a lion – fair enough. But stress from drinking a cup of coffee?
When it comes to what you eat, your choices have a direct and long-lasting effect on one of the most powerful organs in the body – your brain.
Your brain is always working to keep you healthy. It’s built on an incredibly intricate web of systems that rely on each other for optimal bodily function. When we introduce food and drink to the body, we are actually introducing a complex combination of compounds that interact with your brain cells, ultimately releasing mood-altering hormones such as norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. Sometimes these hormones help the brain in its effort to keep us healthy – but often, they can do more harm than good.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at five foods that may trigger low mood or anxiety.
Gluten is a tough one – for most people, it’s a regular feature of their diet and one that can feel really hard to avoid. However, a diverse range of studies have linked gluten intake to feelings of anxiety, irritability and even depression.
In short, this is to with our gut lining – the barrier that is meant to protect our sensitive insides from the outside world. Gluten can actually loosen the walls of the gut, allowing undigested food particles and other inflammatory particles to pass into the bloodstream. This in turn can impact the production of our ‘feel good’ hormones, serotonin and dopamine. Remembering that 70-90% of serotonin and dopamine are made in our gut. When we reduce our gluten intake, or even adopt a gluten-free diet, we allow our digestive tracts to heal and seal, which in turn leads to better production of those feel-good hormones.
Most people are aware that dairy in excess isn’t great for the body. The reason for this is that one of the digested proteins from cows’ milk – casein – has been seen to interact with opiate receptors in the brain, termed as an exorphin. It can sound like a lot of jargon, but what’s really happening is that the molecular similarity between gluten and casein make them co-conspirators – casein also has a negative effect on the gut wall lining.
As is the case with gluten, when you have compromised gut wall integrity, small particles of food can leak into your bloodstream. Your immune system sees these food particles as foreign envaders and attacks them, increasing inflammation in your body. As we’ve previously discussed, inflammation is problematic for a number of reasons. It’s relevant here as it has been linked to a number of different mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, ADHD and schizophrenia.
In addition, those with signs of anxiety, bipolar disorder or depression often have an elevated immune response to casein. Interestingly, casein has been shown to reduce the absorption of cysteine, which is an important amino acid for mental health.
It's important to remember that milk in the supermarket is usually processed, pasteurised and homogenised with denatured proteins and fats, leaving very little nutritious goodies left for your gut to absorb. While it sounds like doom and gloom, you don’t have take drastic measures – start small by switching to a milk alternative for your cereal or coffee and make small steps from there.
Start small by switching to a milk alternative for your cereal or coffee and make small steps from there.
Don’t despair – we know sugar naturally occurs in many foods that are whole and nutritious, such as fruit, and it can be hard to avoid completely. However, research does suggest that added sugar is a major contributor to overall anxiety.
The reason for this is that once sugar has been ingested, it gets broken down into glucose. Glucose then either gets used as energy for the present moment or stored for future use, generally in our liver or muscles cells. These glucose stores have a huge impact on our blood sugar regulation, and alert the body to insulin production. Insulin is released in response to high blood sugar levels, and has a strong pro-inflammatory effect throughout the entire body. It also tells our fat cells to hold onto energy!
Unfortunately, the constant roller coaster of ups and downs set off by sugar consumption creates a stress response in your body. Subsequently, you may feel irritable, shaky and tense, all signs of anxiety. Sugar can also weaken your body's ability to respond to stress, which can in turn hinder your ability to deal with stressful moments. Remember, we’re talking about added sugar – so do your best to curb your sweet cravings with natural wholefoods like fruit or dates, and cut the high sugary extras out of your diet.
Anyone who has ever had a few too many drinks on a Friday night will understand how toxic alcohol is for the body. And if its toxic to the body, it’s toxic to the mind! Alcohol is a huge issue facing New Zealanders because of its prevalence in our social culture – it’s deeply ingrained in us to link celebrations with alcohol, and avoiding it can feel pretty tough. However, alcohol has also been proven to have a seriously negative impact on the levels of serotonin in the brain, often resulting in signs of depression and anxiety.
And if its toxic to the body, it’s toxic to the mind!
Unfortunately, not only does the consumption of alcohol affect mood and mental function, but it can also have a stimulating effect on our body by raising insulin and cortisol. Think of this as a stress response that affects your mind and body – akin to constantly living in panic mode. In addition, alcohol is also a pure carbohydrate, so it basically has the same effect on the body as drinking a soft drink.
The good news is that alcohol is an easy one to switch out. It doesn’t have to be every time, but you’ll be amazed at the difference even a small cut back will make. Try it for your next event!
Taking away your booze and now your coffee… we probably aren’t that popular right now! But if you experience anxiety or anxious tendency, even just poor sleep, we would strongly suggest you wave goodbye to your coffee regime.
Caffeine creates a stress response in the body, increasing cortisol release from your adrenal glands. This can result in a range of different symptoms, including heart palpitations, racing mind, sweating, and nervousness. In fact, more than one coffee a day can not only increase anxiety, but also may decrease the production of your ‘feel good’ hormone, serotonin, resulting in a low mood.
Again, we get that for coffee addicts cutting coffee will feel more than a little daunting! You could start by cutting back to one a day, and over time try to gradually introduce other drinks that might replace the caffeine hit. So often our diets are built on habit, rather than a sense of what actually makes us feel good – so see what small changes you can make and build from there.
You could start by cutting back to one a day, and over time try to gradually introduce other drinks that might replace the caffeine hit.
While there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to food, it doesn't need to be complicated. Eating to nourish your mind and body can be as simple as focusing on whole natural foods prepared in the way nature intended. And for some, huge steps can be made by simply taking the time to question your consumption. Ask yourself: ‘How does this serve me in this moment? I am drinking this coffee out of habit, or because I really am enjoying it?’. If it fills you with joy, go ahead! But if you won’t even remember it afterwards, maybe it’s time to say goodbye.
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