By Casey Seidenberg
As the mother of preteen boys, the issue of moods is often on my mind. Though I’m told you can’t truly know the range of human emotions until you’ve had a preteen girl, everyone — boy or girl, toddler, teen or adult — has mood swings. I’ve noticed that when my children are in pleasant moods, chances are that I will be, too, and vice versa. This means I am invested in keeping our moods stable. So what is the connection between mood and food?
Our brain regulates our moods. In layman’s terms, our brain needs four main chemicals, also known as neurotransmitters, to properly produce steady positive emotions. These chemicals are serotonin, endorphins, catecholamines and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). The food we eat provides the building blocks of these four important compounds.
In “The Mood Cure,” psychotherapist Julia Ross explains that there are certain positive feelings associated with each of the four main mood-enhancing neurotransmitters, and also certain amino acids that ignite or fuel each of these neurotransmitters. We need all four happy chemicals to have balanced emotions. Nobody wants to feel euphoria all the time (although it might be tempting), but feeling relaxed and stress-free is a healthy state of mind.
Happy Neurotransmitter(s) -- Associated feelings -- Required amino acid(s)
Seratonin -- positive, confident, flexible -- tryptophan
Catecholamines -- energized, upbeat and alert -- tyrosine
GABA -- relaxed and stress-free -- GABA itself
Endorphins -- comfort, pleasure and euphoria -- DLPA
As the days remain short and gray, I imagine we all could use more of these happy chemicals in our bodies. How do we get them naturally? The uncomplicated answer: Eat protein and omega-3 fats.
Because these four neurotransmitters are ignited by amino acids, and amino acids are essentially parts of proteins, logic would serve that one key to unwavering moods is eating enough protein.
I see many women who skip breakfast and then eat a vegetable-based salad at lunch, therefore getting their protein just once a day, at dinner. This pattern of eating will not support regular mood-enhancing chemical production. This pertains to kids, too. A pancake for breakfast isn’t going to cut it.
So what should we eat? Eggs are great sources of these amino acids and such an easy breakfast. Turkey is another good source, as are other lean meats, fish, beans and protein-rich whole grains.
Fish provides not only the amino acids but also the important healthful fats that are the next component of good moods. Our bodies use omega-3 fatty acids to build a healthy brain. These fats have also been shown to slow down the enzymes that destroy the mood-boosting neurotransmitters. What foods provide omega-3 fatty acids? Fish is the best source, while flaxseed, chia seeds and walnuts are vegetarian sources.
On the flip side, there are mood-depressing foods that either leave us depleted and weary or strip us of our mood-boosting compounds. We’ve all heard that sugar and refined carbohydrates give us a quick burst of energy but leave us depleted and collapsed. Caffeine has a similar effect and has been shown to inhibit serotonin production. Aspartame, too, can inhibit serotonin. Chemical additives and food colorings have been studied extensively for their effects on mood and behavior, especially in children. I’d limit all of the above.
I am not claiming that food can cure or create any mood. I recognize that it is just one component and that most emotions are based on aspects of life that we can’t control. But I am a big fan of focusing on what we can control: the food we eat. I’m also a fan of a house full of happy people. That certainly boosts my mood.
First published in the Washington Post on Thursday, February 28, 2013.