Foods that alter your mood

Foods that alter your mood

The plan to controlling brain chemicals that'll decide how happy you'll be today.

Foods that alter your mood. Image courtesy: Thinkstock Photos/Getty Images

Grandmums across the world don't tire saying, 'a way to a man's heart is through his stomach.' Research suggests there is science behind the adage. "For one," says psychiatrist Dr Yusuf Matcheswalla, "whether they are fancy dawats or a simple dinner, eating gives you pleasure. Our emotions, intellect, rationalisation and cognition are all related to neurochemistry. That is triggered by what we eat."

There's a reason, he explains, that for centuries, Ayurveda acharyas emphasised the benefits of sattvic food or those eats that lead to clarity of mind and balance in body.

Brain chemicals (neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine and acetylcholine) that are triggered by what we consume, influence the way we think, feel and behave.

So, food affects our mood, and in turn, our behaviour. For instance, eating banana for breakfast can help you race through a hectic day. Caffeine, found in tea, coffee, colas and chocolate, is probably the most widely used behaviour-modifying drug in the world.

"We often choose to drink it if we are feeling tired and irritable, because it gives us a boost, helping us concentrate," says registered dietician Sukhada Bhatte. "Chocolate, reduces tension and ups your mood due to the release of serotonin and cannabinoid receptors signalling."

Chemical reactions

Bhatte says serotonin plays a role in the homeostatic maintenance of arousal, mood, appetite, sleep, impulse control and other neurobiological functions. A plate of egg whites, soy protein, sesame seeds, cheese, milk, whole wheat and nuts (almonds, walnuts, pistachios and cashews) - all good sources of tryptophan, an amino acid that's readily converted into serotonin — can help brighten your outlook to the world. Low levels mean you feel worried, sleepless and constantly crave sugar. Studies have shown that higher levels of this messenger of happiness can relate to constructive social behaviour.

Dopamine, the other brain chemical that elevates mood, is synthesised from amino acid tyrosine, which is found in eggs, milk, and cheese and soy protein. It affects the reward and pleasure centres of the brain and is associated with transient feeling of pleasure. However, prolonged exposure to high levels of dopamine may lead to a decline in threshold for its innate levels. Reach out for a cup of green tea (chamomile, in particular), since its happy properties are linked to its polyphenol epigallocatechin-3-gallate levels.

Bhatte cautions against eating processed foods because they not only have an effect on your weight, they play games with your mind too. "The repetitive consumption of unhealthy comfort foods rich in carbohydrates, fats and sugars promotes a vicious cycle of overeating, obesity, which in turn changes mood due to metabolic disturbances."

Glucose levels

Fluctuations in blood sugar levels are associated with altered mood and energy available. Glucose is the main source of readily available energy to the brain and other body cells. Hypoglycemia or low blood sugar can occur when a diabetic has not eaten a meal before taking his insulin dose. It may also occur among healthy individuals in cases of starvation or crash dieting or as a side effect of a medicine, says Bhatte. Hypoglycemia deprives the brain of its primary energy source, thereby triggering anxiety, fatigue and confusion. This is perceived as 'low feeling' by the general population.

A diabetic needs to be more careful since hypoglycemia may lead to an acute complication. They should therefore, consider the 'low, fatigued feeling' as a warning sign.

What to eat

For food to have a positive effect on our mood and metabolism strive to consume a balance of cereals, pulses, dairy, fruits and veggies. It's a natural way to pump micro-nutrients, antioxidants and phytochemicals into your body. "The right balance of carbohydrates and proteins enhance your ability to produce serotonin in the brain," she adds.

Foods rich in folic acid (beans and greens) and vitamin B12 (fish, poultry and dairy) have been seen to prevent disorders of the central nervous system, mood disorders, and dementia, says Edward Reynolds, MD at the Institute of Epileptology, King's College, London, in an article published in WebMD.

Those rich in Omega-3 are important because the essential fatty acids are the building blocks of the brain.

Brain cell membranes are made up of 20 per cent fatty acids, which makes Omega 3 crucial for brain signals to flow smoothly. An article in Psychology Today says doctors call this class of fat 'essential' because, unlike several other nutrients, our body cannot produce it naturally. We can derive it from a specific foods like walnuts, leafy greens, flaxseed and seafood.

The senses

Food affecting mood doesn't start and end with its consumption. According to Matcheswalla, the way food is presented, its aroma and texture also trigger neurotransmitters in the brain. "When we see a pretty sight, it generates a rush of happy brain chemicals like serotonin, endorphin and dopamine," he adds. This explains why sometimes, simply gazing at a gooey chocolate cake leaves you rosy-eyed unlike the sight of dal-chawal, even though the latter's nutritional value is far greater.


The US-based nutritionist and author of the widely read, The Mood Cure, says each of the four mood engines in your brain needs a different amino acid fuel. The lower your access to amino fuel, the more False Mood symptoms you develop. The four emotion-generators in your brain are called neurotransmitters. Each one powers a different emotional zone in your brain and each has a distinctly different effect on your mood.

The dark cloud of depression: If you're high in serotonin, you're positive, confident, and easy-going. If you're sinking in serotonin, you'll tend to become negative, obsessive, worried, irritable, and sleepless.

The blahs: If you're high in catecholamines (also known as dopamine; epinephrine; norepinephrine), you're energised. If your catecholamines have crashed, you'll sink into an apathetic funk.

Anxiety and stress: If you're high in GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid found in cherry tomatoes , shrimp and brown rice), you're relaxed and stress-free. If there's a gap in your GABA, you'll be wired, stressed, and overwhelmed.

Oversensitive feelings: If you're high in endorphins (triggered by the consumption of banana, walnuts, and dark chocolate), you're full of feelings of comfort, pleasure and euphoria. If you're near the end of your endorphins, you'll be overly sensitive to hurt.


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