By Andrea Platzman, M.S., R.D.
Food and mood, do they go together like body and mind? Elizabeth Somer, MA, RD, author of Food and Mood: The Complete Guide to Eating Well and Feeling Your Best (Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1993) explains that for many of us, mood and energy problems are a result of what we eat and how we live. In addition, your mood influences what you eat at your next meal. At the foundation of this exchange is an orchestra of cells and chemicals that allow your basic nature to develop and interact with the world. Who you are (how you act and how you feel) depends on how well that orchestra, your nervous system, plays its music.
Getting in the Mood
“The keys to your brain function are the chemical messengers of mind and mood called neurotransmitters,” explains Hyla Cass, MD, author of Natural Highs, Feel Good All The Time, (Avery Publishing, Inc., 2002). “Trillions of nerve cells, called neurons, are scattered throughout the body but are most highly concentrated in the brain. Connecting to one another via branches called dendrites, they link together like interconnecting highways. Neurotransmitters deliver messages from one neuron to the next,” Cass explains.
There are twenty known neurotransmitters, which are made from amino acids. Food is broken down into individual amino acids, which then enter brain cells and are converted to neurotransmitters in a series of biochemical steps. This process cannot take place without the presence of several essential vitamins and minerals.
Gloom and doom, sadness and madness, melancholy, sorrow – depression has many names and is often described as the common cold of psychiatry. “Foods that contain the essential amino acid tryptophan help your body produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that, when depleted causes depression and quarrelsome [behavior],” says Cass.
Tryptophan is found in protein-rich foods such as fish, turkey, cottage cheese, chicken, avocados, bananas, and wheat germ. Tryptophan is absorbed into the bloodstream with the help of vitamin B6 and B12, folic acid, and other nutrients. “Serotonin levels are directly related to the amount of tryptophan in the blood and the availability of these vitamins. As the blood and brain levels of tryptophan rise and fall and as vitamin intake fluctuates between optimal and deficient, so does the level of serotonin,” Somer explains.
Ironically the more protein you eat, the more sluggish you feel. Somer explains this phenomenon: you flood your body with both tryptophan and its competing amino acids and they all fight for brain entry. Only a small amount of tryptophan gets through, leaving you feeling sluggish and craving carbohydrates. In contrast, a carbohydrate-rich meal triggers the release of insulin from the pancreas. This hormone causes most of the amino acids floating in the blood to be absorbed into the body’s cells except for tryptophan, which remains in the bloodstream at high levels. Now, tryptophan can enter the brain freely causing serotonin levels to rise. One should consume high-fiber foods such as popcorn or whole grain bread instead of simple carbohydrates such as cake or cookies.
Heading Off Headaches
Hippocrates is credited with saying, “Food is thy medicine and medicine is thy food.” He was absolutely correct in reference to the treatment of headaches. “Some cases of headaches are triggered by certain foods or their current conditions are worsened by these foods. One person’s morning grapefruit is another person’s migraine,” says Neal Barnard, MD, author of Foods That Fight Pain (Harmony Books, 1998). Clinical studies have shown the following foods to be the most problematic:
• Citrus fruits
• Meat, including beef, pork, poultry, fish, etc.
• Wheat (bread, pasta, etc.)
• Nuts and peanuts
Certain beverages and additives are also among the worst headache triggers, including alcohol (especially red wine), caffeine, aspartame, nitrites, and monosodium glutamate (MSG).
Dr. Barnard focuses on eating foods from the pain-safe food list:
• Brown rice
• Cooked or dried fruits (not citrus fruits)
• Cooked green, yellow or orange vegetables
“For three to four weeks take all twelve trigger food categories out of your diet completely and consume food from the pain-safe food list, after that time begin putting the trigger foods back, one at a time, starting at the bottom of the list. If you are headache-free, keep them, if you begin to feel any pain, keep it out of your diet. If you don’t do anything at all, at least remove dairy from your diet,” suggests Barnard.
Long touted as an aphrodisiac and reportedly devoured by Casanova, chocolate stimulates the love hormone. “It stimulates the hormone phenyl-ethyl-amine (EPA), causing your body’s endorphin levels to rise, giving you a feeling similar to falling in love,” says Stephen Sinatra, MD, author of Spa Medicine (Basic Health Publications, Inc., 2004).
Sinatra recommends eating foods high in tyrosine such as eggs, meat, and fish to boost energy levels. Tyrosine helps to produce the energizing neurotransmitters dopamine, noradrenaline, and adrenaline.