Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bad Mood, Food . . . and Stress

We all live hectic, busy lives. It seems almost as if our very culture and society prime us for self-neglect—rewarding us for being constantly on the go, hard at work, and for placing ourselves last in the chain on our list of things to pay attention to every day.

The result—stress and mood swings, sometimes from bad mood to worse mood. And herein lies the “food connection,” both good and bad. Can what you eat affect your mood? Can your diet be part of the equation to reduce stress?

Think about what you eat and how it makes you feel. This is what we call mindful behavior. Omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, tryptophan, folate and other B vitamins, low glycemic foods, and (yea! even chocolate) have all been studied to determine their impact on mood. These are the same nutrients and foods that are part of a healthy diet. And, we all know, or should know, that when you eat a healthy diet, your body benefits. Eating fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains throughout the day fuels your body and helps keep your blood sugar at a healthy level. You’re getting vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytonutrients, and you’re not getting them from a pill.

There’s more at work—combining healthy, simple carbohydrates and proteins enhances the availability of serotonin in your brain, a neurotransmitter said to have a calming effect, influencing mood, appetite, sleep, memory and learning, temperature regulation, and some social behavior. It can also affect the functioning of the cardiovascular system, muscles, and various elements in the endocrine system (in fact of our 40 million brain cells, most are influenced directly and indirectly by serotonin). So now you receive an additional mood boost by just knowing you are taking care of yourself out there in the “food chain.”

Now turn it around and think about those foods and behaviors you associate with a stressed-out lifestyle. Does this sound familiar? Someone you might know at work, sleep-deprived, gulping down caffeine and shoveling in fast food and snacks from vending machines, all the while on the run? Now you have a vicious cycle of stress, food and mood. Stress leads to sleeping less, which leads to more caffeine and sugar for a quick fix, followed by the unavoidable crash and need for another fix. Add to the mix skipping regular meals, substituting “real” food with packaged or fast food, and no time or energy for physical activity. The toll is physical and mental stress. And so the cycle continues.

Most of us have been there. But have most of us figured out how to break out of this cycle? Have you? We’d like to hear from you.

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