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Using Food to Boost Your Mood: Hormones and Your Brain by Dionne Detraz, RDN

I am an integrative dietitian nutritionist and, as such, I believe that our health concerns are connected, or integrated. The health of your gut influences the health of your brain, as we discussed in last week’s SOULFUL Insight. The gut-brain connection is the first of three food-related systems in your body that impacts your mood, emotional well-being and mental health. In this post, I’ll discuss the other two systems.

Hormonal regulation

Your gut’s health also influences the health of your hormones. When your microbiome is unhealthy and your gut is inflamed or irritated, it can cause an imbalance in your hormonal production, upending the second food-related system that influences our moods. We’re all keenly aware of how fluctuating reproductive hormones can influence our moods. Imbalances in our gut can similarly affect our stress hormones or the hormones that regulate our blood sugar.

If you're consistently dealing with spiking and dropping blood sugars, your mood is most assuredly going to suffer. Like myself, I bet many of you know first-hand the nasty symptoms of being “hangry” (hungry and angry).

How to balance your blood sugar Follow these three main strategies to help keep your blood sugar steady throughout the day:

  • Don't skip meals: for most of us, this means eating within one to two hours of waking up and then every four to five hours after that. If you are anticipating a long stretch between meals, then you may want to have a planned snack ready to go to keep your sugar steady until your next meal.

  • Avoid foods that raise your blood sugar; these include refined and processed carbohydrates or foods with a lot of added sugar, sweets, soda, fruit juice, cakes, cookies, etc.

  • Keep your meals balanced: a balanced meal is one that includes protein and fat along with high-fiber plant foods. All three of these foods take longer to break down and digest, keeping you full, satisfied, and steady until your next meal—giving you at least four to five hours of steady blood sugar before the “hangry” monster returns.

Feeding the brain The third system—the most obvious when it comes to mental health—is your brain. When you nourish your brain with the vitamins, minerals, amino acids and fatty acids it needs to produce adequate amounts of neurotransmitters (brain chemicals responsible for communication throughout your body and brain), you will have all the ingredients necessary to fuel a happy mood. Two essential neurotransmitters for mood stabilization are serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin helps you feel relaxed, while dopamine helps you feel focused and energized. The foods we eat provide the building blocks for these chemicals, which in turn regulate and enhance our mood. Healthy fats, especially the omega-3 fatty acids (EPA, DHA, ALA), support neurotransmitter pathways in the brain. Many studies have looked at the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in combating depression and other psychiatric disorders. One study published in Brain Behavior and Immunity showed a 20% reduction in anxiety among medical students taking omega-3, while past research has shown that omega-3 fats may work just as well as antidepressants in preventing the signs of depression, but without any side effects. Healthy brains and nerve cells depend on omega-3 fats because the nervous system is comprised primarily of fat. Your brain is 60% fat, and DHA alone makes up about 15-20% of the cerebral cortex—an area of the brain responsible for memory, language, creativity, emotion and attention. Low DHA levels have been linked to depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, memory loss and Alzheimer's disease. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that countries with diets rich in fish have lower rates of depression, bipolar disorder, postpartum depression and suicide.

How to Nourish Your Brain Eat the following foods that will feed your brain and neurotransmitters. Serotonin is produced with the help of tryptophan, an amino acid found in complex carbohydrates and animal protein, and B Vitamins (particularly folate, B12 and B6). Several studies (links in resources, below) have shown an association with folate (B9) or B12 deficiency and increasing rates of depression. Healthy B6 levels are also associated with a more positive mood. Dark green leafy vegetables and legumes are probably your best sources for folate, while animal foods provide B12 and B6. Shiitake mushrooms are another great source of vitamin B6. B vitamins are also important in regulating your stress response and energy production. Omega-3 fats and vitamin D are also helpful in boosting serotonin levels. Dopamine is produced with the help of the amino acid tyrosine. Thankfully, tyrosine can be found in many different foods: Parmesan cheese, soybeans, beef, eggs, nuts and seeds are all good sources of tyrosine. Bananas and purple/blue berries also help to boost dopamine levels. Chocolate produces a compound in the brain that can temporarily block feelings of pain and depression. It also contains other chemicals that can prolong the "feel-good" feeling. Yeah…another reason to keep chocolate in your diet. :-) In summary, focus on these foods to feed your brain:

  • Protein: animal- and plant-based

  • Complex carbohydrates: colorful fruits and veggies, whole grains, legumes

  • Dark green leafy vegetables

  • Healthy fats (especially omega-3 fats like fish, avocado, nuts, seeds)

  • Mushrooms—specifically shiitake mushrooms

  • Dark chocolate

It is also important to limit or avoid the foods that are getting in the way of your happy mood: foods that deplete the body of the nutrients needed to fuel the brain while disrupting the systems that contribute to mood. Limit your intake of these foods: Sugar is probably the biggest offender and, by consequence, refined carbohydrates. A diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates can cause unstable blood sugar as well as raise inflammation throughout the body and brain. Research has tied inflammation to higher incidences of depression. Using data from the Women's Health Initiative, researchers found that the higher a woman's blood sugar rose after eating sugar or refined grains, the higher her risk for depression. Processed foods include a bucket of potentially damaging ingredients, such as MSG, nitrates, artificial colors, artificial flavors or artificial sweeteners, to name just a few. Research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry looked at more than 3,000 people and found that those who ate the most processed food faced an increased risk of depression, while those who ate the most whole foods had much lower rates. Aspartame, in particular, is problematic to the nervous system and brain. Research has shown that many people experience headaches, mood disorders, dizziness or migraines after consuming aspartame. And in one study, participants consuming high-aspartame diets exhibited more irritable moods and more signs of depression. Many pesticides have neurotoxic effects in the body. Crops that have been sprayed with pesticides like Atrazine or Roundup are the most problematic. These chemicals have been found to cause mineral deficiencies, which ultimately affects mental health. Alcohol can also be a problem. Although you might feel cheerier initially, your brain is busy producing hormones from that alcohol that increase feelings of stress and anxiety. As a depressant, alcohol reduces serotonin and affects the nervous system, which can ultimately lead to a bad mood. Unfortunately, caffeine can also be a problem. We've all felt the initial boost in energy and mood after consuming some caffeine. However, you may be relying on caffeine all day and finding that your mood isn't as cheerful as normal. This is a signal that you may be experiencing "caffeine overdose" and doing your body more harm than good. Caffeine can alter your mood by impacting hormones, neurotransmitter function and nerve signaling—leaving you feeling less than stellar. It can also intensify anxiety-like feelings by increasing your heart rate and making you feel jittery. In summary, avoid these foods and substances:

  • Sugar and refined carbohydrates

  • Processed food

  • Non-organic foods

  • Alcohol

  • Caffeine

Take-home message Although it’s a bit of an elaborate dance, the take-home message from all this information is that there is A LOT you can do to improve your mood and emotional well-being. And remember, it’s all connected. When you start with one system, you will be positively benefiting the other systems, as well. Step 1: Nurture your gut microbiome by avoiding toxins that will disrupt the bacterial balance while including more of the foods and environmental influences that will help build your microbiome and increase bacterial diversity. Step 2: Balance your blood sugar by eating balanced meals on a consistent schedule throughout the day. Step 3: Nourish your brain by focusing on the foods that feed your neurotransmitters and brain cells while avoiding the foods that can actually disrupt your mood. By being thoughtful and intentional with your food choices, you will be well on your way to a happier and more positive mood. And when you add lifestyle factors such as exercise, sleep and stress management, you will only amplify the positive benefits.


Dionne Detraz, RDN

Dionne Detraz, RDN, is a Cancer Nutrition Expert and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She specializes in helping people navigate cancer treatment with integrative diet and lifestyle strategies so they can have more energy and fewer side effects from treatment.

Dionne’s experience includes over 15 years of working in health education, wellness and nutrition. Before starting "The Rustic Dietitian, Inc." in 2016 she worked for two years at the University of California San Francisco Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and spent more than 10 years as an outpatient dietitian and health educator at Kaiser Permanente. Her education includes a unique blend of medical nutrition therapy with integrative and functional medicine.

Originally from California, Dionne lives with her husband and their two daughters in France. Last year, she published The Cancer Diet Cookbook: Comforting Recipes for Treatment and Recovery.

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