The link between food and mood is not new. People have associated eating certain foods with a person’s mood. This has been long established, even in Ayurveda. Research over the last two decades has brought a deepened understanding of brain chemistry together with effects of food on behaviour and mental health.
Certain constituents of food alter the neuro-chemical messengers called the neurotransmitters, which help in brain functioning and carrying signals between nerve cells. The three main neurotransmitters which have been commonly associated with food include dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. These neurotransmitters are produced in the brain from certain components of food.
While dopamine and norepinephrine are associated with alertness, serotonin has a calming, relaxing and a feel-good effect. Another set of ‘feel-good’ neurotransmitters are endorphins. These positively influence mood and appetite, decrease pain sensitivity and stress. Endorphins are released during starvation and prolonged exercise.
Changes in the levels of these neurotransmitters leads to alteration of moods and state of mind. Foods high in carbohydrates increase the production of tryptophan, a precursor of serotonin. This explains why often people crave for carbohydrate foods like sweets, breads, rice and pasta and seek these as comfort and calming foods. Interestingly, it also explains the drowsiness that sets in after eating a carbohydrate rich meal. In fact, the effect goes beyond calming. It has been suggested that serotonin has a role to play in appetite control and may inhibit eating. Scientific human and animal studies have shown that serotonin reduced caloric intake by reducing hunger and increasing satiety.
Chocolate consumption increases the release of serotonin and endorphins into the body, which together produce a relaxing and euphoric feeling. Another reason why chocolates help in elevating mood is its fat and phenyl-ethylamine content. Fat and phenylethylamine are associated with endorphin release and as mentioned sugars improve the serotonin secretion, so It’s not surprising, why many crave chocolates when feeling depressed. Other factors in food that affect mood include blood sugar levels, nutrient deficiencies, toxic heavy metals and food sensitivities. A drop in blood sugar (hypoglycaemia) can cause irritability, depression, fatigue and moodiness.
Severe chronic deficiencies of vitamin B6, B12, folic acid, thiamine, niacin, vitamin C and magnesium can cause irritability, mood swings, depression, dementia or schizophrenia. Deficiencies of micronutrients including iron, copper, zinc and antioxidants impair neurotransmitter synthesis. Researchers have found that inadequate levels of magnesium in the body can result in damage to the brain’s nerve cells leading to depression and mood disorders. Evidence is accumulating that food intolerance and food sensitivities like gluten and milk protein can trigger mood swings, anxiety, fatigue and even schizophrenia.
Author is a clinical nutritionist and founder of http://www.theweightmonitor.com and Whole Foods India