For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere , our summer is over, the days are getting shorter, there’s even less sunshine and, for many of us, we start to feel the ‘gloom and doom’ associated with the cold, dark days ahead. For some people, however, this feeling persists regardless of the season, come rain or shine. It is possible, however, to influence our brain chemistry with the foods we eat.
Most, if not all foods, bring about chemical reactions in the body and have an impact on how we feel. Some make us feel energetic, alert and happy, yet others can make us fatigued, irritable, angry and even feel depressed. Before you open your fridge to enact a culling of the ‘depressing’ foods, we merely want to highlight those foods which can increase levels of the important mood-enhancing neurotransmitter serotonin, and bring about an awareness of the foods which we should eat in moderation. †
Foods to Eat Plenty Of
Cross-sectional studies have established that countries with the highest fish consumption, such as Japan, have the lowest rates of depression. Omega-3 fatty acids are abundant in the brain and are involved in the mechanism by which brain neurons communicate. The omega fatty acid EPA, found in oily fish such as salmon, anchovies, mackerel and tuna, is crucial for brain health and function. EPA moderates mood in two ways: firstly, it regulates the mood-influencing hormones serotonin and dopamine; secondly, it addresses the inflammatory element of depression by switching off inflammation pathways, as well as EPA itself being converted to anti-inflammatory substances.
Research suggests that the optimal dose of omega-3 EPA is 1 gram daily, equivalent to 4 concentrated Vegepa capsules. With the government recommendation not to exceed 3 portions of fish weekly, it is not advisable to obtain therapeutic doses of EPA by way of eating fish. In choosing a fish oil supplement, be sure to avoid liver oils. As well as being less sustainable, oils sourced from larger species of fish tend also to be less clean. A good way to overcome this is to take a highly purified fish oil supplement which has undergone a filtration process of molecular distillation to eliminate heavy metals, PCBs and dioxins.
Unlike the nutritionally inferior ‘white’ varieties, wholegrain bread, pasta and rice, as well as many of the cereals found in a healthy muesli, can help increase the production of serotonin in the brain, thus promoting a calmer, happier state of mind. Wholegrains, due to their low GI status, also balance blood sugar levels, releasing energy slowly, so as not to create an energy ‘rush’ and then slump, unlike sugary and refined carbohydrates. Wholegrains are also packed full of important B vitamins, deficiencies of which have been linked to anxiety and depression. Conversely, white carbohydrates supply few nutrients, and actually deplete the body of B vitamins.
It is important to consume as many vitamins and minerals as possible, in order to create the foundations for a healthy body and mind. Try eating at least the recommended 5 portions of fruit and vegetables per day, but make sure you eat a variety of different fruit and vegetables, thus getting the widest possible variety of nutrients into your body (if possible, avoid fruit with a high sugar content as this can create the same highs and lows in energy levels as a couple of biscuits).
Protein is one of the building blocks of our cells and is required for the body to function and repair itself. It is also known to increase the production of serotonin, making it an essential element of any mood-balancing diet. Eat mostly lean protein including chicken, turkey, eggs and cottage cheese, but limiting the intake of high-fat dairy products and red meat. Be wary, however, of non-free-range meat; some animals are fed with artificial hormones and antiobiotics, which you’ll then be ingesting.
Quite as important as eating the right types of food is the process of eliminating the ‘bad’ foods. Where possible, reduce intake of caffeine, alcohol and foods high in sugar and ‘bad’ fats, all of which de-stabilise blood sugar levels and create mood slumps, which only aggravate symptoms of depression. Unfortunately, many comfort foods fall into this category, but try to resist the temptation to reach for something as a ‘quick fix’, which is likely to worsen your mood soon after.†
Avoiding stress is vitally important in maintaining a balanced mood, since it can play a role in the onset of depression. Try to take regular exercise, outdoor walks, spend time with close friends or family. Research suggests that connecting with loved ones (and also animals!) is good for our well-being.