Learn how the foods we eat influence our moods—and how common issues such as anxiety, depression and irritability might be tied to nutrition.
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.
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 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.)
Low serotonin: Serotonin’s primary responsibility is maintaining mood balance—in particular, a positive outlook and emotional flexibility. A lack of serotonin may show up in a variety of symptoms: anxiety, panic or phobias; anger and irritability; guilt; a pessimistic outlook; insomnia; and low self-worth. Controlling and obsessive behaviors may also be present. The amino acid L-tryptophan converts to the chemical compound 5-HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), which in turn converts to serotonin. For those who struggle with these issues, Ross recommends trying between 50 and 200 mg of 5-HTP daily, or 500 to 1,000 mg of L-tryptophan. Dosing at night can help with insomnia. Most people find relief from 5-HTP, but a few have better success with its precursor, L-tryptophan.
Low catecholamines: The catecholamines dopamine, norepinephrine and adrenaline support alertness, energy, concentration and drive. A deficiency often manifests as chronic low motivation and difficulty focusing. I usually explain to my clients that if they can motivate to do, and focus on, the fun stuff, but have difficulty getting themselves to do the boring or difficult stuff, that’s probably not a low catecholamine issue. These symptoms often can be resolved by supplementing with the amino acid tyrosine or phenylalanine (which converts to tyrosine). The dosage for both is 500 to 2,000 mg up to three times per day, but it’s crucial to refrain from using them after 3 p.m., as the energy boost may hinder sleep. First always obtain thorough thyroid tests to rule out impaired thyroid function as the cause of these symptoms.
Low GABA: GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a brain chemical that provides us with a sense of calm and relaxation. GABA deficiency can result from prolonged stress or a nutrient-depleting diet. It produces the “tired and wired” sensation. GABA can help produce feelings of calm and tranquility by turning off adrenaline production. According to Ross, the anxiety drug Valium was modeled after GABA. The amino acid taurine is also excellent for relaxation. Depending upon individual needs, 100 to 500 mg of GABA can be taken one to three times per day. Because of its relaxing qualities, it can be helpful for those who have stress-related sleeping issues.
Low endorphins: Endorphin deficiency can be genetic. Chronic stress and physical pain can also deplete endorphins. If you’re low in these neurotransmitters, which inoculate us to emotional and physical pain, you may feel overly sensitive and have a hard time “getting over” life’s stressors. The amino acid phenylalanine stimulates the production of endorphins and can help you cultivate more emotional resiliency. Take 500 to 1,500 mg up to three times per day. As with tyrosine, be sure to finish your dosages by 3 p.m. to prevent interference with sleep.
Omega-3s: Omega-3s are a category of fatty acids key to building healthy brain cells. Our conventional American diet tends not to contain many omega-3s (found in fatty fish, pastured meat, high-quality dairy products, walnuts and flax seeds) and tends to be high in omega-6s (found in vegetable oils and fried foods). Omega-6s can cause inflammation and deplete omega-3s. Christina Veselak, a mental health nutritionist in Denver, suggests that one common sign of low omega-3 status is a depression marked by apathy, sluggishness and low energy. Boost omega-3 intake by increasing dietary consumption or by supplementing.
Zinc and vitamin B6: Zinc and vitamin B6 are two of the most important nutrients for brain function, Veselak says. “The brain requires vitamin and mineral ‘co-factors’ in order to turn amino acids into their neurotransmitters,” she says. “Without these, brain processes diminish. Physical signs of low zinc are white spots on the fingernails, stretch marks and trouble tasting and smelling food. Emotional signs of both low zinc and B6 are intense anxiety, depression, irritability and learning issues.” Meat and seafood are excellent sources of zinc; tuna, turkey, beef and chicken are high in vitamin B6. However, if you suffer from chronic mood issues, you may require targeted therapeutic support from supplements, which offer higher concentrations of these micronutrients. Veselak suggests supplementing with 15 mg zinc and 25 mg B6 for most conditions.
Now you understand how nutrients are connected to both the production and the transmission of neurotransmitters. It logically follows, then, that having an effective digestive system is a fundamental part of good mental health. If our digestive systems are working efficiently, we can extract and utilize the maximum amount of nutrients from our food. This means the protein we consume can effectively convert to amino acids, which can then convert into neurotransmitters. It also means that the vitamins and minerals we eat will be extracted from our food and used throughout our bodies, and will be present to perform their roles in supporting brain function.
Unfortunately, many of us lack a healthy digestive system, and this can have profoundly negative effects on our mood. Natasha Campbell-McBride, a doctor with postgraduate degrees in neurology and human nutrition, describes the connection between a ravaged digestive system and mental health issues in her book, Gut and Psychology Syndrome. She says a healthy digestive system has an abundance of “good” gut flora, which aid in the process of digestion. The standard American diet, various medications (including antibiotics and birth control pills), stress, disease and alcoholism can create an imbalance in our gut flora. Specifically, these factors can cause an overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria or fungus in the digestive tract, which hinders its ability to digest effectively. This dynamic has far-reaching effects, including limited ability to digest and integrate nutrients, and the development of a toxic state in the body. Ultimately, these can lead to mental health problems.
If you struggle with bad-mood symptoms, it’s crucial to consider what you’re eating and when you’re eating it. Ingredients made in a lab instead of nature (such as dyes, preservatives and other chemical additives) and highly processed foods are difficult to digest—and often devoid of nutrients. Stick to meals composed of clean, nutrient-dense foods such as organic vegetables and fruits; nuts; legumes; eggs, meat and dairy products from pastured animals; and whole grains. Probiotics are excellent for rebuilding gut flora. To increase your healthy gut flora, eat fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, high-quality yogurt and even lacto-fermented pickles, or take probiotic supplements. If you’ve cleaned up your diet and you’re still having emotional difficulties, consider seeking an expert, such as a nutritionist trained in amino acid therapy or a naturopathic doctor, who can recommend treatments based on your symptoms.
Stephanie Small is a psychotherapist and holistic nutritionist (and recovering sugar addict) who teaches women how to end emotional eating without feeling deprived. Via her practice in Boulder, Colorado, and Skype, Stephanie helps women transform their relationship with food. She also offers online programs, writes, blogs and speaks at live events. Visit her at Stephanie Small Health.