By Ali Weinberg M.A., LMHC, Certified Wellness Coach
Have you ever stopped and wondered how your food choices affect your mood and emotions? Do you notice how certain foods can make you irratable while others satisfy you and give you energy? This irratability can also be felt when we don’t get enough nutrients or haven’t eaten in a while. What’s going on here? If we take a look at the physiology or chemistry of the human body we can see that the human endocrine system is very intricate and affects nearly every cell and organ in the body. The endocrine system is made up of glands that release chemical hormones, and these hormones regulate many of our basic human functions such as mood, metabolism, sexual function, and the growth and development of our body’s cells. In fact, the process of converting food into energy for the body to function and self-regulate is called metabolism.
Your body’s metabolism can be affected by many factors. Some of the most common factors that disrupt normal hormonal functioning are lack of sleep or rest, certain foods, medications, stress, poor nutrition and under or overeating. You will definitely feel it when your hormones are disrupted, some of the most common symptoms are moodiness, fatigue, irritability, anxiety, increased appetite, weight gain, and foggy thoughts.
It is not surprising that continued or sustained states of hormonal imbalance can eventually lead to more serious complications such as depression, diabetes, gastrointestinal issues, cardiac problems, high cholesterol, and other risky health problems.
The average person probably doesn’t understand the impact that hormones have on the human body and on the chemistry of neurotransmitters in the brain. The hormonal chemistry in the brain ultimately has a huge effect on how we operate on a daily basis. The neurotransmitters are like the message boards for our body and brain, relaying signs and signals back and forth between the two entities on a daily basis. You’re most likely familiar with the common example – when you burn your hand on the stove, neurotransmitters in the brain get the message and send a signal to your body to pull the hand away from the stove. In a similar realm, when we eat something in excess or we are lacking nutrients, the brain sends signals to the body that something is not quite right and this can have a heavy impact on mood, emotions, and mental health.
When you eat and break down food, your brain releases the chemical neurotransmitters known as serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine and norepinepherine. Serotonin has a relaxing effect, while dopamine and norepinephrine increase levels of alertness and can give us that alert and energized feeling. The nutrients in the food we eat will actually act as precursors to the neurotransmitters, deciding how much of each neurotransmitter should be produced. For example, check out how the following essential macro-nutrients affect our mood and energy:
Carbohydrates– Increase serotonin levels, which will lead to an enhanced mood. However, it is very important to focus on whole grains and slow processing carbohydrates such brown rice, oats and sweet potatoes, and fruits and vegetables. Limit processed carbohydrates such as cookies, cakes, and snack bars. The processed versions of carbohydrates lead to quick energy spikes, and an equally rapid drop in energy.
Fats– Contrary to popular belief, dietary fat is not the enemy! Omega fatty acids can increase positive emotions since consumption of these fats have been shown to increase the release of opiate-like chemicals in the brain. Choose healthy fats like avocados, olive oil, salmon, mackerel, moderate portions of nuts, and buttery spreads that are high in mono and poly-unsaturated fats.
Protein–Various amino acids found in protein will increase hormones such as dopamine, norepinephrine and epinephrine levels, which help us to feel energized, alert, and positive. It is important to focus on eggs, low-fat dairy, tofu, lean cuts of meats, fish and beans to get adequate amounts of protein.
Other things to think about with regard to food and mood:
1. Watch out for too much caffeine. While it has been proven to give us a jolt of energy and increase productivity, it can also cause a sharp increase in anxiety, insomnia, food cravings, and mood swings. Limit coffee to no more than 2 cups a day.
2. Cut back on added sugars and processed foods. Excess sugars, food additives and processing can have profound adverse affects on your endocrine system and continued exposure will impact your health in negative way.
The most important thing to remember is that when you make a conscious effort to eat a variety of healthy foods, you will notice an increase in energy, more emotional stability, as well as fewer cravings and health problems. Food is not the enemy. It helps our body function under stress day in and day out, and it is the vehicle in which we are able to be present with loved ones and do the things we enjoy. By fueling your body with the healthy and delicious foods that it needs, you will notice a marked shift in your energy and mood.
Ali Weinberg is a certified health and wellness coach and licensed mental health therapist. She is Director of Wellness Coaching at Engin, Inc. in Charlestown, MA, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.