Dr Libby: Foods to enhance your mood
When we think of our mood, we tend to think of it being related to our brain, yet many neurotransmitters are actually made in the gut.
Eighty percent of the body's serotonin – a happy, calm, content hormone – for example, is made in the gut. Fermented foods typically contain microbes that are beneficial to the human digestive system and hence can enhance our mood. You can buy them or make your own.
Chocolate is a good source of tryptophan, an amino acid that supports the production of serotonin. Chocolate consumption also drives the brain to produce another chemical called anandamide, which has been shown to temporarily block feelings of pain and depression. Dopamine is also produced when we eat chocolate, and this can have a mood lifting effect on many people.
However, for those with already elevated dopamine levels, excessive amounts of chocolate can lead to tension and aggression. So like with all things related to mood, there is no one size fits all; some find chocolate enhances their mood, for others it gives them a headache and/or fires them up.
Bananas, particularly ripe bananas, can help to regulate dopamine – a feel good factor – as they contain a high concentration of tyrosine, an amino acid that helps generate dopamine in the brain. Bananas are also rich in B group vitamins, including vitamin B6, as well as magnesium, both essential for relaxation and a calm nervous system. Other food sources of tyrosine include almonds, eggs and meats.
Well-regulated blood-glucose levels are critical to an even mood. That means including proteins, fats and/or fibre with meals and snacks to ensure glucose from sugars and starches is released slowly into the blood. Most importantly though, don't rely on fats, proteins and fibre to do this – don't over-consume sugars and starches in the first place.
EPA and DHA, the essential omega 3 fats found in oily fish, flaxseeds, walnuts and pecans, have been shown to reduce anxiety and have a positive impact on many mood parameters.
Laboratory studies have shown that the herb ginkgo biloba improves brain function. Research shows this is due to improved blood circulation as its action opens up blood vessels and makes blood less sticky. It is also an antioxidant.
According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the liver is the seat of anger in the body.
The liver plays many different roles for us, including detoxifying (transforming) substances that if they were to accumulate, would be harmful to us; the liver takes these substances and changes them into less harmful forms so we can excrete them.
When the liver cannot keep up with its load – either too many "liver loaders" going in such as alcohol, trans fats, refined sugars, artificial substances; or there are not enough nutrients for each biochemical detoxification pathway to occur efficiently; or both – TCM suggests that it is liver function that needs support.
To paraphrase Michael Pollan, that means eating real food (wholefoods), not too much, and mostly plants. Words to live by.
Dr Libby is a nutritional biochemist, author and speaker, and is a regular contributor to Well & Good.