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Eat Your Way to Happiness

Learn how the foods we eat influence our moods—and how common issues such as anxiety, depression and irritability might be tied to nutrition.

| January/February 2015

  • You can eat your way to happiness with the right foods and supplements.
    Photo by Veer

If you’re like most of us, you’ve probably noticed how eating certain foods can affect your mood. Maybe your morning cup (or four) of coffee makes you energized, or maybe it sends you over the edge into jitteriness. Maybe you’re familiar with the elevated, buoyant sugar high, and the resulting crash that leaves you irritable and sluggish. Maybe you’ve even felt anxious or pessimistic after eating foods that, unbeknownst to you, were causing allergic reactions in your body. And hopefully you’ve also experienced the calm and emotional stability that a nutrient-dense diet can provide over time.

As a psychotherapist and holistic nutritionist who helps people heal their relationships with food, I’ve witnessed first-hand the powerful link between food and mood. Usually, my clients have been binge eating or addicted to sugar and carbs for years, and have seen the damage this has done to both their physical and emotional health. Once they come to me, they’re committed to leveraging the power of nutrition to help elevate their moods. Here are some of the most important principles I teach them regarding how nutrition impacts our physiology, which in turn impacts our emotional state.

Blood Sugar and Adrenals

When it comes to stabilizing mood—and cravings—understanding the connection between blood sugar and the adrenals is key. Here’s the quick-and-dirty version: “When you eat a sugary or carb-heavy food, your blood sugar spikes,” says Matt Reddy, a naturopathic doctor in Denver. “Insulin spikes to compensate for that blood sugar spike, which in turn creates a blood sugar drop. That activates the adrenals to secrete the fight-or-flight hormones adrenaline and cortisol.” The side effects of these hormones include a jittery, anxious sensation that can also feel like an uncomfortable “high.” Guess what else causes the adrenals to secrete stress hormones? Caffeine.

To get off this blood sugar roller coaster, we should aim to keep blood sugar levels stable. This means eating regularly and loading meals with protein, the magic blood sugar stabilizer. And if you find your beloved morning brew is, in fact, causing you grief, consider switching to decaf or exploring teas. If you can’t let go of your coffee, make sure you eat protein before you drink it as a way of mitigating that blood sugar spike.

Amino Acids and Omega-3s

Amino acids are the building blocks of neurotransmitters—the feel-good chemicals that are mainly manufactured in our guts. There are 22 amino acids, some of which our bodies naturally make and some of which we have to get from our food (or supplements). Because amino acids come from protein, it’s not uncommon for vegans to have amino acid deficiencies. In fact, many of the vegans I see in my private practice struggle with depression, anxiety and sugar cravings, and find significant relief when we add more protein and amino acid supplements to their diets. Why might you be neurotransmitter-deficient? Certain foods, such as highly refined foods and caffeine, and certain lifestyle issues such as excessive stress and insufficient exercise deplete our amino acid stores. Genetics can also play a role.

Many practitioners have done remarkable work with amino acid therapy. Nutritional therapist Julia Ross, author of The Mood Cure and The Diet Cure, is one of the best-known. As founder and director of The Nutritional Therapy Institute Clinic in Mill Valley, California, she and her staff, for the past 30-plus years, have helped thousands of patients using supplement- and nutrition-based protocols. In The Mood Cure, Ross identifies four primary neurotransmitter deficiencies, as well as the amino acids that can ameliorate the resulting symptoms. (Note that contraindications exist for some amino acids, and taking “too many” or the wrong types can potentially result in adverse side effects. For that reason, it’s important to consult with a qualified professional before beginning an amino acid regimen.)

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