You may not know it, but food can act as a powerful drug. Yes, foods high in carbohydrates can increase the neurotransmitter, serotonin, in your brain. You have probably felt its impact - you eat a large meal of pasta and bread and you feel really calm and peaceful and, of course, satiated. When you increase levels of serotonin, you can induce a feeling of well being and actually calm anxiety. If serotonin drops, then you can begin to feel irritable and moody, and if you have felt the medicating influence of carbohydrate foods, you may begin to self-medicate to restore that calm feeling. There can be two problems with that:
- These foods (carbohydrates) can spike your blood sugar rather quickly, especially when unaccompanied by other foods, because they digest quickly (if processed) and release large amounts of sugar into your bloodstream. An hour or two later, you can then feel a rather profound blood sugar drop, and that drop can cause you to feel moody and irritable again.
- These foods (carbohydrates) can be caloric, and eating them too frequently or eating too much of them can create a weight gain that will…depress you.
So the ideal situation is to choose foods that can help your mood, but to be specific about the so-called “winners” that offer healthy calories and mood stabilizing. Portion control is also important. So which foods are mood stabilizing winners?
Nutritionists consider oatmeal a fabulous food for breakfast or snacking because it has whole grains and fiber which helps to stabilize blood sugar rises. Choose less processed brands that have little added sugar, and add sweetness by using evaporated skim milk or flavored soy milk and berries. Choosing individual packets of oatmeal can help with portion control.
Whole grain breads, rice and pasta
Again, in portion controlled amounts, whole grains behave similarly to oatmeal. You can choose a variety of rice blends and less known grains like quinoa, as well as yams and sweet potatoes, Ezekiel, rye and sourdough bread, and whole grain spaghetti are other choices.
It’s a fish that is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, but it is low in mercury. It is also rich in vitamin D which we now know can help with mood stabilization. Top it with some fresh herbs and lemon or glaze it with a bit of teriyaki sauce. Even just grilled it’s a flavorful fish
In general, dieticians are recommending that some of the time you replace meat-based protein, with alternative proteins that are lower in saturated fat for healthier eating. Additionally, low folate levels can increase your risk of developing depression. Just a cup of lentils daily give you almost a day’s worth of folic acid. And because they are rich in protein and fiber, your blood sugar will remain stabilized during digestion. Use lentils in soups, on salads, in chili and in stews.
Make Trail Mix
Having periodic small healthy snacks can go a long way to stabilize mood and prevent hunger and irritability. Make a mixture of high fiber cereal, a variety of unprocessed nuts and dried fruit and use a shot glass or Altoid’s box to measure out a portion.
Chocolate is unique because you derive immediate pleasure from the taste in your mouth, followed by the boost of serotonin as the sugar is released. Alkaloids in the chocolate may raise serotonin levels as well, and the fat in chocolate causes a release of endorphins which act like natural opiates. Just remember it is very dark chocolate in small portioizes that is the best choice.
These food choices can help you to minimize mood swings and stabilize how you feel, but if you have underlying reasons for depression, or you are clearly eating for emotional reasons, choosing to eat these foods will not be a total cure. Seek the help of a therapist or health professional and work on your issues. Food should provide fuel, pleasure and nutrients, but it should not be used consistently to treat negative feelings.
Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”