Today more than ever we need to be mindful of our mood and mental health, whilst some may feel a sense of anxiety due to our current circumstances, the shorter days and darker evenings may have an impact on others.
Here, Grange’s Laurann O’Reilly, a qualified nutritionist and managing director of Nutrition by Laurann provides us with some nutritional strategies which can play a role in regulating stress, improving our mood and overall health.
Firstly, it’s important to understand that whilst our mood can have a huge influence on our food choices, our food choices can also influence our mood. For this reason it’s even more important to make right food choices for our body and mind and weigh up the short term rewards of sugar and processed food with the long term rewards of nourishing foods, which provide us with energy, promote brain function and support our mental health.
1. Blood Sugar Balance
During challenging times our stress hormones such as cortisol can cause us to crave foods high in fat and sugar as part of our fight or flight response. Unfortunately this can result in sugar crashes and cravings which have a negative effect on our blood sugar levels and can cause our mood to fluctuate.
Tip: Avoid foods high in sugar such as white bread/pasta/rice, cakes and biscuits and opt for wholegrain bread/pasta/rice/oats and seeded options instead.
2. Avoid Processed Foods
Recent studies suggest that some mood disorders may be linked to inflammation and that a greater consumption of foods associated with inflammation such as trans fats and refined carbohydrates which are found in processed and take away foods may also have an effect on our mood.
Tip: It can be helpful to check the labels of your food, long ingredient lists can often indicate that foods are more processed. Also be aware of the cheaper vegetable oils as they are often high in ‘trans-fat’ mentioned above, instead opt for extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil for cooking.
3. Gut Feelings
Have you ever experienced a ‘gut feeling’ or tummy issues when faced with anxiety and stress? That’s because there is a ‘gut-brain connection’. Inflammation and imbalance in our gut has also been found affect our mood and anxiety. Often referred to as the ‘second brain’ our gut contains billions of receptors and messengers which send messages to our brain and almost 90% of your serotonin (happy hormone) is produced in your gut. Our gut bacteria also send messages to the brain which can impact our stress responses.
Tip: To keep your gut healthy try to include foods such as probiotic yogurt, fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, and kombucha. It may also be helpful to take a course of probiotics, particularly if you have recently been on anti-biotics (it generally takes about 3 months for the gut bacteria to re balance)
4. Omega 3 Fatty Acids
As almost 60% of the brain is made of fatty acids, omega 3 fatty acids play an important role maintaining healthy brain and supplementation can help to improve the mood of patients diagnosed with depression.
Tip: Aim for 2-3 portions of oily fish/week (salmon, mackerel, tuna, herring, and sardines), as well as walnuts, chia seed and flax seed (or oil). You can also get omega 3 in supplement form in most pharmacies and health stores.
5. Dark Chocolate/ Raw Cocoa
Yes, chocolate is good for you, that is without the added milk and sugar. Studies have found that dark chocolate or raw cocoa can boost brain function, improve mood, as may even lower anxiety and depression. This is because cocoa causes the brain to release endorphins, boosts serotonin levels as well as being high in the fibre and valuable minerals magnesium, zinc and potassium. Remember the higher the cocoa content (the darker the chocolate) the better.
Tip: Add 2 squares of dark chocolate (70% +) / 2 teaspoons of raw cocoa nibs / raw cocoa powder in cereal, yogurt or smoothies. You can also make a tasty and nutritious hot chocolate made with raw cocoa powder, coconut/dairy milk & honey. Raw cocoa powder or nibs should be available in most health stores and some supermarkets.
Who knew, the innocent banana would come up on this list? As it turns out bananas contain an amino acid (protein building block) called ‘tryptophan’ which is essential for creating serotonin (the happy hormone) and also melatonin (the sleep hormone), thus having positive benefits for both mood and sleep!
Tip: As the sugar from bananas is quickly released you can balance this out by having it on wholegrain brown bread, topped with a little cinnamon.
7. Valuable Vitamins & Minerals
Our micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) play an important role in regulating our mood as they are involved in the synthesis of messengers called ‘neurotransmitters’ which send messages to the brain. The main messengers associated with mood are serotonin and dopamine (otherwise known as the happy hormones) as well as gamma-aminobutyric acid
GABA (which plays a role in anxiety regulation). Balancing these messengers can help to support our nervous system, reduce anxiety and improve our mental health.
B Vitamins: Deficiencies in the vitamins B3 (niacin), B6 (pyridoxine) and B12 (folate) have been linked to low mood and in some cases depression. This is because these vitamins play an important roles in the manufacture of serotonin, dopamine, GABA and help to support the adrenal glands which regulate stress and anxiety. Other B vitamins are essential for energy metabolism (the creation of energy) and can help reduce the fatigue and tiredness which often accompanies low mood.
Food Sources: Wholegrain foods, meat, dairy, eggs, seeds, nuts, fruit and vegetables. It may also be helpful to take a ‘B Complex’ vitamin supplement which can provide you with the full range of B vitamins to support your nervous system and energy production. This should be available in most pharmacies and health stores.
Vitamin D: As our bodies produce vitamin D from sunlight, our levels of this vitamin can seriously decrease during the dark winter months. It has also been suggested that that this drop in vitamin D may be linked to ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder’ or SAD, a mood disorder which is also common in individuals during this times, this is because vitamin D is involved in regulating the production of serotonin.
Food Sources: Oily fish, eggs, fortified foods such as breakfast cereal and milk. Due to the low levels of sunshine in winter I would recommend taking a vitamin D3 supplement during the winter months, which is available in most pharmacies and health stores.
Magnesium: Known as ‘nature’s natural sedative’, magnesium is plays an important role in regulating our stress response, recovery, repair and sleep. Studies have also found magnesium to be effective for mild to moderate depression in adults.
Food Sources: Wholegrain foods, oats, bananas, broccoli, dark leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds and soybeans. Magnesium supplements are also available in most pharmacies and health stores
Zinc: Essential for brain and nerve development and can assist in balancing GABA, the anxiety regulating messenger. Studies have also found that supplementing with zinc results in improved mood and brain function.
Food Sources: Red meat, liver, eggs and wholegrain foods. Zinc again can be taken in supplement form which should be available in most pharmacies and health stores.
Selenium: Plays an important role in the brain and nervous system, improves brain function as well as regulating dopamine (happy hormone).
Food Sources: Lean meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, eggs, brazil nuts and wholegrain food.
Choline: Although neither classified as a vitamin or a mineral, this nutrient plays an important role in the production of the neurotransmitter (cell messenger) acetylcholine which is promotes mood and improves memory.
Food Sources: Beef, chicken, fish, dairy products, mushrooms and beans. This can also be purchased in supplement form from most health stores.
About Laurann: Laurann O’Reilly is qualified and experienced Nutritionist with a BSc. Degree in Human Nutrition from University of Nottingham and a Master’s in Public Health Nutrition from University College Dublin. She has over 10 years of experience including working community and clinical care, research, personalised nutrition consultations (dealing in healthy eating, weight loss, digestive health and sports nutrition), teaching and developing nutrition courses at FETEC level, nutrition education talks and workshops (corporate wellness, schools, sports teams, public and private talks), previous food manager of the Coeliac Society of Ireland and is part of the roll out team for the Healthy Ireland Smart Start health promotion programme for pre-schools.
For further information see www.nutritionbylaurann.ie or contact Laurann at email@example.com
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