How does food affect our mood?
When you think about it, our food is our fuel, you wouldn’t try to fuel a fancy car with the wrong kind of petrol – it just wouldn’t go! The same can be said of our bodies. If we fill them with junk and stodgy food we won’t run as efficiently; we won’t have enough energy, concentration or good mood to last us through the day.
On a neurological level, what we eat affects the neurotransmitters our brain produces which, in turn, guide how we are feeling. The food that we eat helps our body to extract the nutrients needed to create neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine which can help to regulate our mood.1
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is thought to affect our mood, social behaviour, sleep, memory, sexual desire and sexual function. What’s more, this neurotransmitter also affects our appetite and digestion, between 80-90% can be found in the gastrointestinal tract so it’s not surprising that there is an evident link between our mood and our food.2
Dopamine is another feel-good chemical that can be altered by our diet. It is commonly known for activating the reward or pleasure centres in the brain. The good news is that all eating increases our dopamine levels, however, this is particularly the case when it comes to fatty and sugary foods which, more often than not, aren’t so good for us. These kinds of foods can not only lead to highs and lows and sugar crashes but they can also increase our appetite, which can lead to overeating and weight gain in the long term.
Food and mood: the good, the bad and the tasty
More and more of us are becoming aware of not only the benefits of certain foods on our mood, but also those foods which are not so good for our mood. According to research, junk food could actually make you meaner! The study found that higher intakes of trans-fats were significantly linked to an increase in aggression and irritability.3 However, there are still a few foods out there which may be fuelling negative feelings, even although they are considered to be healthy for us on the whole.
1) Agave nectar
We all know that sugar is bad for us; it causes blood sugar spikes as well as energy highs and crashes that can wreak havoc on our mood. It’s no wonder that we experienced sheer joy when a natural, diabetic-friendly sweetener arrived on scene. However, is this natural sweetener derived from plants really all that it seems? Perhaps not.
Agave sweetener is made by treating the natural sugars with heat and enzymes which destroy all the beneficial health effects that are already present in the Agave plant. The end result is a highly refined, highly processed syrup which doesn’t do us much good.
Although it is low in glucose (which is why it doesn’t spike blood sugar levels much and has a low glycemic index) it is extremely high in fructose which can cause havoc in our metabolic health. The liver gets overloaded with fructose and starts converting it into fat.4
In turn, this can eventually lead to a number of health conditions including high blood pressure, insulin resistance and obesity. All of these health conditions can negatively impact our mood and cause emotional imbalances. What’s more, agave nectar can also lead to metabolic syndrome which can cause mood instability.
A feel-good food alternative: All things sweet and sugary should be consumed in moderation, however, if you’re looking for a good-mood alternative, I’d suggest switching it out for Manuka honey, which is simply jam-packed with nutritional, digestive and health benefits. Honey contains an amino acid called tryptophan which can help with the formation of serotonin which can help us to feel good.5
2) Non-organic fruit and vegetables
Usually we are advocates of eating as much fruit and veg as you can and, while this is certainly the case, I wanted to make you aware of one tiny downside. Regularly eating non-organic produce could potentially be giving you some neurotoxins alongside your fruit and vegetables. If you’re looking for a reason to go more organic this is it.
Non-organic crops are often sprayed with pesticides, the remnants of which can easily end up on your food. These chemicals are thought to have a negative effect on mental health as well as cause nutritional deficiencies.
Foods that are pumped with chemicals prior to consumption can also disrupt the balance of good gut bacteria. As we already know, the gut is strongly connected to the brain and vice versa, so this disruption is bound to cause a few mood swings.
A report released by the British Journal of Nutrition stated that there were nutritional differences between organic and non-organic foods. According to this report the content of antioxidants in organic foods was substantially higher than those found in non-organic produce.6 Antioxidants are excellent brain food and can help to perk up the mood of those who are affected by stress and anxiety.7 For more information, check out our blog on why organic farming is better for your food.
A feel-good food alternative: If you can, buy organic as much as possible and try to shop at local farmers markets. If this isn’t a financially friendly option for you, make sure to take extra care washing your produce and even try to opt for organic in those foods which are most often contaminated with harmful pesticide levels. If you are thinking of going organic but aren’t sure where to start, check out our blog for some handy tips and advice.
3) Salted or processed nuts and seeds
Packed with nutritional value, nuts and seeds are another food you may be surprised to hear make this list. While there is nothing wrong with them when consumed raw or roasted yourself, processed versions are often coated with a preservative called potassium bromate, which prevents iodine from being absorbed by the thyroid.
What’s more, nuts and seeds are also often loaded with sodium and other additives such as MSG, an artificial flavouring that can leave us feeling weak, depressed and moody.
A feel-good food alternative:
Why not try mixing up your own raw nut and seed combination flavouring and roasting to your own personal preferences? For those of you who enjoy spicing things up a little, I’d recommend seasoning your nuts with our Spicy Herbamare seasoning. For those of you with high blood pressure, or those who are watching their sodium intake, I’d suggest trying our Low Sodium Herbamare alternative.
Gluten, a protein found in wheat, is the primary culprit of the mood-reducing quality of wheat. The word ‘gluten’ comes from the word glue, referring to its glue-like properties. The problem with this is that many people aren’t able to digest it properly because of its glue-like consistency. Overexposure to gluten is thought to cause mental fog as well as other undesirable digestive complaints.
While it is commonly known that white grains have no nutritional value and cause rapid spikes in blood sugar levels, it may come as a surprise to learn that whole wheat bread has a similar effect. Most whole grain products have been processed into very fine flour which tends to raise blood sugar levels as much as white grains. This will cause a blood sugar spike and crash, which will affect energy levels, focus and can cause mood swings.8
What’s more, wheat contains a substance called phytic acid which essentially steals minerals such as calcium, zinc, iron and magnesium. Phytic acid can bind to these minerals which prevents them from being absorbed by the body.
So, what does this mean in terms of mood? Well, magnesium is an important mineral for mood regulation and preventing fatigue, while low levels of iron can result in fatigue, apathy, and mood changes that are thought to lead to low mood and even depression. Low levels of calcium could potentially play a role in PMS-related low mood, plus low levels of zinc, which is found in almost every cell in the body, can lead to a variety of ailments including weakened immune system, loss of appetite and depression.9
A feel-good food alternative: Again this is about moderation, a little probably won’t do your mood much harm, but a lot can cause quite a bit of damage. Try switching out some of your wheat-filled meals with alternatives such as rice, quinoa, nut flours and gluten-free oats.
5) Canned Soup
Canned soup can contain high levels of a chemical called bisphenol-A (or BPA) a chemical that has been used for years in the production of clear plastic bottles and food-can liners.10 This chemical has been linked to mood disorders such as depression and anxiety and is thought to damage brain cells and affect memory.11
What’s more, canned soups, particularly tomato-based varieties, are often loaded with additional sugar which leads us to another case of sugar highs and lows with regard to mood.
A feel-good food alternative: Instead of buying in canned varieties, why not have a go at making your own soup? Check out, all of our easy soup recipes over at our recipe hub such as our Easy Spicy Sweet Potato Soup. This will not only take out the risk of any BPA contaminated soup cans but also prevent sugar from sneaking its way into your meals.
Feel good food is just one way to support your mood
While your diet plays a big and important role in supporting and looking after your mental health, there are other ways in which you can support your mood.
Regular exercise, such as running, is a scientifically proven way to help give you an instant boost of endorphins and help to lift your mood. If you want to start running but aren’t sure where to start, take a look at our how-to guide. There are plenty of different kinds of exercise out there if running isn’t for you – anything that gets the heart pumping counts!
Life doesn’t always go to plan, which can leave us feeling anxious and low in mood - sometimes we need a helping hand to get us back on the right track. Hyperiforce is a licensed herbal remedy that contains extracts of the St John’s Wort herb that I often recommend to help provide relief from low mood and mild anxiety.
Originally written on 04/01/2018, updated on 29/10/2018.