This is Your Brain on Food: The Relationship Between Diet and Mental Health
We feel what we eat as much as we are what we eat. Our brains are the energy powerhouse for our bodies, so eat well to think and feel well. In this article, we cover: The Brain: Our Energy Powerhouse, How Foods Fuel Moods, and Changing Diet to Maintain Your Mental Health.
The Brain: Our Energy Powerhouse
On a cellular level, the mitochondria are most often referred to as the energy powerhouses of our bodies because they host the site of cellular respiration. Mitochondria are the cellular energy factories that churn out energy in the form of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) and serve as the catalysts for a cascade of cellular functions. The amount of energy that goes to the brain is estimated to use around 20% of the body’s energy. That’s why our brain is the energy powerhouse of our bodies. It uses a large amount of fuel and it never shuts off, even when we are sleeping.
The ATP from mitochondria might be premium fuel, but other chemicals and compounds also influence our brain health and function. Neurotransmitters and hormones serve a vital purpose in connecting our brains with the rest of our bodies to control physical and psychological functions. Without their complex interactivity, our bodies would not function, and our mental health would suffer.
How Foods Fuel Moods
The idea of foods influencing our moods is not new, though has largely been regarded as myth or unfounded. Think chocolates, oysters, and champagne for date night or trying to lull someone to sleep by the power of a Thanksgiving Day meal. While not all these things are entirely untrue, we do feel what we eat.
A review published in 2018 reported that foods undoubtedly are natural sources of substances that affect our nervous systems, especially the neurotransmitters acetylcholine, GABA, dopamine, serotonin, and histamine. What we eat also influences our hormones, which in turn interact with our nervous systems. Here are a few different examples of how foods interact with our body chemistry to influence our moods:
Sugary foods and insulin
The hormone insulin affects our nervous system, regulates energy homeostasis, and plays a role in our memory and mood because the brain is an insulin-responsive organ. Insulin levels rise or fall in reaction to blood glucose levels. When we eat foods with readily absorbed sugars or eat very sweet, sugary foods, insulin rises. When our blood sugar levels fall, another hormone, glucagon, signals the liver to release sugar into our blood stream again. This balanced interaction helps steadily supply the brain with fuel. Eating too much sugar can bombard the body with an energy level, causing you to feel anxious or nervous, and then a sudden crash as the body attempts to achieve homeostasis. Similarly, without enough blood sugar, your brain is robbed of fuel, and you might feel sad, sluggish, irritable, or foggy.
Probiotics, tryptophan, and serotonin levels
Serotonin is the neurotransmitter well-known as the happy chemical, and it is known to play a role in the treatment of depression. Normal levels of serotonin leave you feeling happy, calm, focused, and more emotionally stable. Serotonin can be found throughout the nervous system and in blood, but it is produced and mostly found in the gut. The essential amino acid tryptophan is used to make serotonin, which means we must eat foods with tryptophan to maintain healthy serotonin levels. We also need to keep our gut happy any healthy, which is why consuming probiotics could help with mood stability.
Psychostimulants are thought to work by interacting with the dopamine levels in the brain. Dopamine is the pleasure neurotransmitter that evokes feelings of euphoria and also plays a role in our motivation and self-regulation. Similar to serotonin, dopamine relies on the essential acid tyrosine for production, so eating protein-rich foods will help maintain dopamine levels. Coffee, a commonplace stimulant, also interacts with dopamine, in addition to adrenaline, which is why coffee can promote both pleasant and alert moods.
Fats and brain health
While the amount of fat you eat does not seem to have an impact on our moods, the type of fat we eat does impact our brain health. Consuming trans unsaturated fats can increase likelihood of depression, but consuming omega-3 fatty acids (poly unsaturated fats) might help treat depression for some individuals.
Eating healthy fats also helps avoid brain inflammation, which plays a role in anxiety and mood-related disorders. Research suggests that consuming anti-inflammatory foods is a welcome addition to treatment of these disorders, and doctors promote an anti-inflammatory diet of whole foods because it improves mood in addition to its physical health benefits.
Changing Diet to Maintain Mental Health
With a few modifications and new behaviors, changing your diet can have a positive impact on your mood. Here are a few tips for making dietary changes for your mental health:
Eat whole, plant-based foods
Avoid inflammation, which is related to anxiety and mood disorders, avoid trans fats, and include healthy fats and essential amino acids by eating a diet rich in plant-based, whole foods. Eating a variety of whole foods will provide your body the building blocks it needs to produce the hormones and neurotransmitters that affect our moods and the energy our brains require to feel it all.
Eat regularly to avoid sugar spikes
Eating regularly will help avoid the spike and crash cycle of blood sugar levels that can cause irritability, grouchiness, anxiety, and confusion.
Go easy on the caffeine
While it packs a lot of health benefits and can help you feel alert and focused, too much caffeine can cause anxiety. It is also addictive, which means you will experience the negative moods of withdraw if you stop drinking it. Caffeine can also cause insomnia, which will certainly alter your mood the following day.
Decreasing your water intake and getting even a little dehydrated decreases contentedness, positive emotions, and calmness. The good news is that in this same study, participants who increased their water intake felt the exact opposite: more energy, less tired, and less confused or bewildered.
Eating whole, plant-based foods can help provide physical health benefits, and also help improve your mood. Combined with healthy eating habits, like eating regular, balanced meals and staying hydrated, this diet also provides positive impacts on your mental health.
Ready for a deep dive into which foods affect moods and influence mental health? Stay tuned for our upcoming post about Nutritional Psychology, the nutrients that affect mental health, and the foods that contain them.