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Do you feel depressed or anxious more often? Can the food you are eating be the cause?

Updated: Mar 21, 2020

Do you crave for ice creams and chocolates when you are sad? Or eating a cube of cheese, makes you happy! Think about it.

Your brain is always in the “work mode.” From the origin of your thoughts and feelings, to controlling your natural life processes like breathing, sleeping and even your heart beat… does it all. Even when you are sleeping, your brain is functioning and in fact it functions 24*7 hours and 365 days a year. The “work mode ON” status of the brain is accompanied by a constant supply of fuel (in the form of nutrients). That “fuel” comes from the food you eat and the quality of the fuel impacts the outcome.

In simple words, what you eat, directly impacts the structure and functioning of your brain and ultimately, your mental health.

The Happy Hormones

You might have heard about dopamine and serotonin. They are the “happy brain neurotransmitters.” They regulate and process information inside our brain. They are also responsible for making us happy. Indeed, these are also known as “happy hormones.” These hormones are made up of amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins.

Serotonin is made up of the amino acid tryptophan and helps in regulating mood swings, reduce cravings and even aggression. On the other hand, dopamine, is made from the amino acids tyrosine and phenylalanine, and is known to uplift mood and alertness, along with problem solving skills.

So, in other words, it is the amino acids, present in your food, which in fact are impacting your mood and mental health.

So can we now say that our food is influencing our moods? Indeed! Protein rich foods like eggs, almonds and legumes are good sources of amino acids that contribute to dopamine production. Similarly, you can consume egg, yoghurt, leans meat, chicken and bananas for the amino acid tryptophan.

Counting your carbohydrates

Counting on your carbs is equally important. Let’s see how carbohydrates will help in making you feel happy!

Carbs play an important role in the production of serotonin. The insulin hormone (which gets stimulated when blood sugar levels are elevated) facilitates the transportation of tryptophan through the blood brain barrier for the conversion to serotonin.

Secondly, carbs provide us the much needed glucose, the ‘fuel’ for the brain to function. A diet consisting of complex carbs (low GI), such as whole grains, millets (oatmeal, ragi, barley, etc.), whole pulses, fruits and vegetables (with peels and skin) is linked with positive mental health outcomes, as it releases sugar more slowly without spikes in the blood sugar levels, due to the high fibre content. A low GI diet provides a constant and steady supply of the “fuel” to the brain which has a beneficial effect on your mental functioning.

But watch out! This doesn’t mean you will go ahead and have a sugar overload! Restrict the intake of high glycemic index (GI) carbs like sugars, as these have deleterious impact on our health.

The fatty fats

Do you know that your brain has the highest fat content of all the organs in the body! Interesting, isn’t it????

Knowing this fact, it should not be surprising that these ‘fats’ have a pretty much important role in the brain functioning. Essential fatty acids, like omega-3 and omega-6 are necessary for the brain’s structure; the ratio of these fatty acids in our diets is equally important.

Omega-6 fatty acids are present in abundance and sometimes we might over consume them. Plant based foods like nuts, seeds and vegetable oils (sunflower, soyabean, corn) are good sources of omega-6 fatty acids. On the other hand, omega -3 fatty acids, particularly ecosapentanoic acid (EPA)and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are only present in animal foods, especially fatty fishes like salmon and sardines. But vegetarians can also get their dose of the beneficial omega -3 fatty acids from flax seed, flax oil and walnuts.

Hunger Pangs

When anyone gets grumpy, “it’s time to feed the bear!!

Often, when we feel hungry, there is a drop in the blood glucose levels and also a change in regulatory hormones. This further can lead to feelings of irritability, frustration and fatigue. In short, when we experience hunger pangs, we become grumpy and short-tempered.

Interestingly, it is common for us to reach out for a quick-fix – chips, candy bars when we feel hungry. Also, indulging in over eating during hunger pangs can leave us with feelings of guilt, sadness, emotional distress and depression. Surprisingly, the negative effects of a heavy meal may last even longer than you’d thought.

Research on food and mental health is still in its infancy stages with new discoveries happening every day. This new research avenue needs further exploration and encouragement for making people consume the right food to be happy! And with the advancement, now we have the guidelines to help us consume food not only for our physical health but also for our mental well-being. This again reminds us to be mindful about how food affects our minds and our bodies.

Happy reading!

Dr. Bani Tamber Aeri Assistant Professor

Department of Food and Nutrition, Institute of Home Economics

University of Delhi

Preeti Khanna

Senior Research Fellow (PhD Scholar)

Department of Food & Nutrition

Institute of Home Economics

University of Delhi

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