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Researchers are discovering more about the complex relationship between what you eat and how you feel.
We are what we eat. Only now it can be said that we feel what we eat, too. While the food and mood branch of nutrition science is new and still developing, studies show that, to a certain degree, what we eat can influence and control our emotions. Certain mood-related disorders like depression are best treated under the strict supervision of a physician, but many physicians are even including advice about eating patterns and food choices into their overall treatment.
Many of us subconsciously understand the relationship between our moods and the food we eat through our decisions to reach out to various sugar, carb and protein cravings when we feel happy, stressed or blue. “The most basic way that we’ve learned to change our mood since we’ve been children is through food,” says Richard Thayer, a psychology professor from Long Beach State University and author of Calm Energy: How People Regulate Mood with Food and Exercise. “People naturally turn to food as a kind of self-regulation and self-medication.”
Making ourselves feel better with food goes all the way back to the days when we sat in front of the TV watching Saturday morning cartoons with a bowl full of sugary cereal in our laps. It tasted so good because sugar jacked up our brain's endorphin levels. Endorphins are a neurochemical in the brain that has been linked to feelings of well-being. Over time we learned that sugar could make us smile, regardless of how bad life became. “[Sugar] is pleasant in the short-term but unfortunately the ‘high’ is soon followed by a ‘low’ that is accompanied by cravings for more sugary foods,” notes Amanda Geary, a nutritional therapist and author of The Food and Mood Handbook.
For adults, Thayer says that sugar becomes a “reinforcement that produces positive reactions [such as] increased energy and reduced tension.” So even though we may have dropped sweet cereal from our breakfast diet, indulging in that piece of blueberry pie has the same positive effect.
So how do we get that feel-good buzz without consuming too much sugar? Believe it or not, carbs may be the answer. While endorphins are known as nature's pain relievers, serotonin, which is found in some carbohydrate-rich foods, is a crucial ingredient in many antidepressant medications. Serotonin quiets and relaxes us as it washes over our brain cells.
A meal containing pasta or potatoes can trigger spurts of serotonin-induced happiness, but carbs actually best work their magic when they are eaten alone. That's why toast is one of the perfect solutions for a case of the midnight munchies ? it brings about pre-bedtime bliss.
The key to being happy and calm throughout the day is spacing out small meals and snacks that contain carbohydrates to trigger the production or release of serotonin. Bananas, dates and tomatoes are examples of foods that contain serotonin. Protein-rich foods like tuna fish, milk, turkey, legumes and eggs can enhance serotonin's calming effects because they also contain tryptophan, an amino acid that may help gently rock us to sleep.
Tryptophan is necessary for the production of serotonin, but because the body can’t produce its own tryptophan, it must be included in our daily diet. Milk works well for this purpose because of its naturally soothing properties. “The old wives’ tale is true!” says Carlene Johnson-Stoklossa, a registered dietitian with Capital Health's Nutrition Services. “A warm glass of milk can be very soothing as the carbohydrates have a calming effect and can help induce sleep.” Johnson-Stoklossa recommends choosing a high carbohydrate, low protein snack, such as a piece of toast with peanut butter or a small bowl of yogurt with fruit as a natural sedative, but cautions that you should only eat before bed if you are hungry.
Foods high in protein can also affect our mood. In fact, protein has the opposite effect of carbohydrates, serotonin and tryptophan. Protein slowly breaks down and activates substances that sharpen our minds and quicken our reaction time. Some practical workday brain boosters include non-fat dairy products such as cottage cheese and milk or nuts and seeds.
“The brain is a very metabolically active organ,” says Johnson-Stoklossa. “If you’re not eating regularly, you’re not feeding your brain and it gets slow and sluggish.” She adds that studies have shown that kids perform better in school if they eat breakfast. “They’re more attentive, have fewer outbursts in class and are more settled. There's no reason to think adults are any different than kids in that sense.”
So what should you reach for when stress leads to an overpowering sugar craving? Mixing a well-balanced meal or snack with a sugary, bite-sized treat afterwards is the ideal solution. But remember, while food can influence how you feel, it can’t eliminate your emotions or stress. With the right food choices, however, we can regulate the ups and downs of our everyday emotions ? and perhaps find a little bliss along the way.
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