Three Ways to Optimize your Mood
Our mood is affected by so many different things! Life events and situations, hormonal changes, stress and different situations all impact how we feel from day to day. Did you know that our regular eating habits may also play a role in our mood? In recent years, scientists have been increasingly studying the connection between the foods that we eat and our mental health and wellbeing. The building blocks of our brain are made from the nutrients we get from food, so it makes sense that food would have an impact on the way we feel mentally. Often, when we make changes to our eating habits, it can take time to notice a difference in the way we feel, but don’t despair, with time, you will notice a difference. Let's get down to the basics: what are some of the nutrition factors that can affect our brain health and our mood?
1. Healthy Fats
Our brain is made up of about 60% fat. The type of fat that we eat affects the structure and function of our brain cells, which are known as neurons. Some of the most important fats for our brain are essential fatty acids, meaning we need to get them from food because our bodies cannot make them. These include Omega-3 and Omega-6 unsaturated fatty acids. Both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids help contribute to the structure of neurons and help ensure smooth communication is possible within the brain. Omega-3 fats (specifically DHA and EPA) also help prevent inflammation and have been shown to help improve mood.
There are different kinds of omega-3 fatty acids. ALA is an omega-3 fat that is mostly found in plants while DHA and EPA are mostly found in animal foods. ALA needs to be converted to EPA or DHA before being used by the body. However, humans are not efficient converters, so choosing sources of EPA and DHA are typically better choices. EPA and DHA are also better for brain health and may reduce symptoms of depression (1).
A North American diet typically provide adequate Omega-6 fatty acids but many people do not get enough Omega-3 fats. DHA and EPA Omega-3 fats are found in fatty fish like salmon, anchovies. mackerel, and trout. Plant based sources of ALA include flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, soybeans and canola oil. Eating two servings of fatty fish per week is a good way to ensure you are getting adequate omega-3 fats (DHA and EPA). (2).
2. Carbohydrates and Fibre
When we consume carbohydrates, like fruits and grains, our bodies break them down into 'simple sugars' such as glucose, our brain’s preferred source of energy. . Have you ever felt 'foggy headed' or had a hard time thinking when you haven't eaten in a while? When we don’t eat enough carbs, we may start to feel weak, tired and have a hard time thinking clearly! However, we want to make sure to choose 'complex carbohydrates' such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, which contain fibre and are more slow digesting. This means they can provide a steady stream of glucose to the brain and longer lasting energy than simple carbohydrates, like sugar, pop or candy.
Fibre in complex carbohydrates such as whole grains, beans and lentils, and fruits and vegetables also helps to feed our good gut bacteria. Did you know a healthy gut is linked to both physical and mental health? The gut is referred to as our second brain and the gut and the brain are in constant communication through what is known as the gut-brain axis. Our gut is full of bacteria and what we eat over a long period of time influences that type of bacteria we have. Eating a diet with adequate fibre can promote more good bacteria and support a heathy gut microbiome.
Most Canadians are only getting about half the amount of fibre they need. Men need about 38g/day and women need 25g/day. To get more fibre in your diet, choose whole grains more often than refined, adds beans and lentils to soups and salads, and include at least one fruit or vegetable with meals and snacks. For an easy and tasty recipe using lentils, check out my recipe for baked lentil bites.
3. Vitamin D
Vitamins and minerals can affect our physical and mental health, which includes our mood. These tend to play a larger role in mental health if we are deficient. Generally, a diet that focuses on consuming a variety of whole foods leads to better overall mood and mental health (5). However, Vitamin D is one vitamin that is hard to get enough of for many Canadians as we live far north of the equator and so are less likely to get enough Vitamin D from the sun (6). About 1 in 3 Canadians are deficient in Vitamin D (7). Vitamin D is important for maintaining healthy bones and teeth and it keeps our immune system healthy (8). Vitamin D deficiencies can also increase the risk of depression and correcting the deficiency can lead to improvements in mood (9). Health Canada recommends that all adults over the age of 50 take a supplement to prevent any possible deficiencies (7). However, it doesn’t hurt to be aware of this vitamin throughout life.
One source of Vitamin D is the sun, but it is not always the best or easiest source in you live in Canada. To get Vitamin D from the sun we require direct exposure. For those of us that don’t get to go outside too often due to work or other demands, this makes getting Vitamin D hard. Wearing street clothes also decreases Vitamin D production as does wearing sunscreen, which we should all be doing to reduce our risk of skin cancer.
There are only a few foods that contain Vitamin D and it is hard to get enough from food alone. These include egg yolks, fatty fish like tuna, salmon and trout, as well as cow’s milk and many plant milks, which are required by the Canadian government to be fortified with Vitamin D (10).
Supplements are another way, and may be the easiest way, to ensure you are getting adequate Vitamin D. Many multi-vitamins also contain some Vitamin D. It is best to see a doctor or book an appointment with a Registered Dietitian before starting a new supplement. When taking a supplement it is also important to remember that more is not always better. A Vitamin D supplement may not be necessary unless you have a true deficiency.
So, does good food lead to a good mood? Although the research in this area is growing and is still relatively new, it does seem like the foods we eat can have some effect on our mood. The ways that we can support both our mood and mental health are to make healthy fats a part of our diet, to include complex carbohydrates that are rich in fibre, and to make sure a Vitamin D or other deficiency is not the problem. Making these changes can help support a good mood, along with other healthy habits like getting enough sleep and regular physical activity. Now it’s your turn! What changes can you make in your life that can help support your mood?
Contributed by, Maddison Darragh, Dietetic Intern, reviewed by Christina Iaboni, RD