Most of us might have noticed that we are affected by the food and drink that we consume, we may have made the connection that what we put in our bodies has an affect on our mood. So why are some foods great for calming us down and other foods good at stimulating excitement and that feel good feeling? We are going to take a look at why foods affect us in this way and which ones we should be including in our diet for the desired effect.
There is a great step towards acknowledging the gut brain connection in medical science at the moment, with researchers recognising that the gut is a bit like a second brain. The gut communicates with all the cells in our body, including the brain cells which means that disturbances in the gut can have a far reaching effect in the body and mind. The medical director of John Hopkins Centre for Neurogastroenterology - Jay Parisha MD - in interpreting evidence found by researchers now believes that the enteric nervous system located in the gut may send signals to the central nervous system that can trigger mood changes. It has long been thought that a state of mind such as anxiety could trigger gut related disorders such as IBS but it is now being considered it may also work the other way round as well.
“These new findings may explain why a higher-than-normal percentage of people with IBS and functional bowel problems develop depression and anxiety,” Pasricha says.
However without further scientific evidence at this stage we might be best advised to listen to our own body. There may be certain foods that trigger your mood, foods that contribute to you feeling low, and foods that improve your concentration. Here are some foods to try.
Beat the Stress
Stress can be responsible for breaking down protein in the body so making sure you have a good balance of protein in each meal or snack can help the body endure the symptoms of stress. Start as you mean to go on and make sure breakfast includes protein in the form of nuts and seeds sprinkled over porridge, yogurt or muesli, or toast with nut or seed butters. Eggs are also a great source of protein.
Inflammation is also triggered by cortisone the stress hormone so counteracting this with natural anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids can really make a difference. Both Flaxseeds and Chia seeds provide a vegan and vegetarian form of omega 3’s, or oily fish including Mackerel, Salmon and Sardines for pescatarians.
A really delicious protein and omega 3 rich breakfast is Chia seed pudding. It’s easy to make as it’s simply Chia seeds soaked in water overnight with a choice of flavours added. You can add fruit, Cacao and natural sweeteners. Try this recipe for Mango Chia Seed Pudding.
When the stress response kicks in our body shuts down some of our functions and digestion is the first one to be dropped. So when we are really suffering from stress it makes sense to eat lightly and not over stress the digestive system. Smoothies, soups and broths can include nutrition but not tax the body further.
Adding herbs to your diet can also support the all-important adrenal glands that govern stress hormones. Bringing the adrenals back into balance can help reduce the vicious circle of stress triggering more stress. Try adding the adaptogenic herbs Liquorice, Ashwagandha, Siberian Ginseng, Reishi Mushroom or Rhodiola Rhosea. These herbs are all good for busting stress and really help the body system adapt to extreme circumstances such as lack of sleep or the pressures of modern life.
Banish the Blues
Low levels of Folic Acid have been linked to depression, so eating daily servings of green vegetables, pulses and citrus fruit will make sure that the body has enough of this nutrient. Spicy foods are known to trigger the release of endorphins, which are the brain's natural neuro-chemicals responsible for that feel good feeling. Endorphins also help relieve pain by blocking the nerves ability to transmit pain signals. So its all-important to get those endorphins going by adding Chilli, Black pepper and spices such as Cinnamon to your soups, stews and curries. Interestingly the Cacao bean is also thought to trigger neuro-chemicals responsible for happiness and this explains a lot about our identification with the buzz of eating chocolate. Try making your own naturally sweetened chocolate free from dairy and made with the real pure Cacao powder for a feel good treat, Why not add Chilli, Black Pepper or Cinnamon and make the perfect endorphin boosting snack. Find out how to make pure chocolate here.
Be sure to sleep well
The amino acid L-Tryptophan is found in poultry, seeds, nuts and beans and it is partly responsible for serotonin (the happy hormone) and melatonin (the sleep hormone) being produced. Pumpkin seeds are packed with this sleep inducing phyto-nutrient and also contain zinc, which assists the brain converting L-Tryptophan into serotonin and melatonin. Potassium has been linked with improved sleep. Food sources of potassium include leafy greens, baked potatoes, yogurt, fish, avocadoes and bananas. Including these foods is a good idea to help improve your quality and length of sleep. Green Tea contains a brain relaxing chemical called L-Theanine which encourages the production of alpha waves. These are the brain waves we produce when we are relaxed. Green tea can be consumed throughout the day and even into the evening, unlike other caffeinated drinks.
Brain power, memory and concentration
Foods that stimulate the production of the brain chemical Dopamine are key to improved concentration levels and motivation. Ripe bananas, seeds and nuts can boost dopamine levels. Anti-oxidant rich foods can also increase brain power by improving the supply of oxygen to all the cells including the brain cells, so eating berries such as Blueberries, Blackberries and Acai berry is advised. The anti-oxidant herb Ginkgo Biloba has a long history of use in boosting brain function, it works by improving the circulation and supplying more blood to the brain, as well as improving the tone of the blood vessels. Try this Ginkgo and Lemon Balm Loose Leaf Tea Recipe.
The family of edible medicinal mushrooms are also rich in phyto-nutrients that are useful to the brain. Reishi Mushroom is rich in polysacharides which are anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant, it has been known as 'The mushroom of immortality', Lion's Mane Mushroom contains two important phyto-nutrients that stimulate the production of new neurons. Buddhist Shaolin monks used Lion's Mane mushroom in meditation practices, believing it enhanced their concentration thus enabling them to better cultivate the mystical life force "Qi". These compounds may be the key to Lion's mane's reputation for improving memory and concentration. These monks probably took their mushrooms as a hot beverage, by brewing a mushroom 'coffee' or 'tea'. Why not try this Wild Mushroom Hot Chocolate Recipe or alternatively add the powders to soups, stews, salad dressings and sauces.
Be Calm & Banish Anxiety
It’s worth mentioning that caffeine can really trigger anxiety so the first thing is to significantly reduce is tea and coffee or give it up all together, (even just when anxiety levels are peaking due to an external trigger).Certain teas such as Valerian and Chamomile can help calm you down. Valerian seems to work like a sedative on the brain so the best time to have a cup is late in the evening i.e. just before bedtime. It should be brewed for between 5-10 minutes. Meanwhile, Chamomile tea can be consumed throughout the day, perhaps 2 or 3 times as and when needed to reduce anxiety. Infusing the real chamomile flowers for ten minutes will deliver the greatest benefit - see here.
Magnesium is a calming mineral that nourishes the nervous system and helps prevent anxiety, fear, nervousness, restlessness and irritability. Magnesium is also very protective of the heart and arteries which is important if you suffer from anxiety or panic attacks. Food sources of magnesium include Cacao, fish, dark green leafy vegetables, beans and lentils. B-Vitamins are often depleted in individuals who suffer from anxiety. Algae’s such as Spirulina and Chlorella provide a wide range of B-Vitamins, try making this superfood green smoothie to ensure you get your daily serving. Both Spirulina and Chlorella can be included in a daily smoothie or added to soups, salad dressings, dips, pancakes and more. Be inspired by our blue-green algae recipe collection here.
Consultant nutritionist Jenny Tschiesche BSc(Hons) Dip(ION) FdSc BANT was consulted for this blog.