The brain’s emotional mechanism is not completely understood, but research shows that the relationship between food and mood makes up one of the brain-body links. Mood seems to be influenced by the neurotransmitter serotonin, the lack of which makes people feel depressed. Depressed people often crave carbohydrate foods foods. Eating carbohydrates increases the brain’s production of serotonin, which can lead to a heightened sense of calmness and well being. Boosting the amount of the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, that also elevates a person’s spirit, along with alertness and concentration, can be achieved by eating protein.
If you anticipate feeling anxious before a test or an interview, what could you eat to help make you feel both calm and alert? Claudia Lutz, RD, MPH, whose area of expertise is nutrition education, suggests that a good combination, eaten about an hour before the event, might be nonfat yogurt with some fruit juice and fruit. The dairy provides protein and tryptophan, the amino acid that begins the production of serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine). You may want to give yourself a good start by getting a good night’s sleep the day before, she adds, by having no caffeine eight hours before bed time and a minimal amount earlier in the day.
Dietary choices. For examples of meals that may help you feel more alert or more relaxed, refer to CyberDiet’s article on Moods and Foods. For a “feel good” treat, eat chocolate, which contains caffeine, theobromine, and phenylethylamine, which stimulate the nervous system and produce brain endorphins (”internal morphines”).
Dietary changes, as well as nutrient and herbal supplements, can be part of an approach to relieving mild to moderate depression or anxiety. However, diagnosis of deficiencies may require a nutritionally oriented doctor, and a healthcare professional knowledgeable in the field of nutrition or medicinal plants should supervise any supplementation.
The following recommendations may be helpful.
Dietary changes. If you’re depressed, it’s advised that you avoid alcohol, as it is a powerful depressant and can make you feel worse. Additionally, alcohol depletes the body of vitamins essential to good mental health. People experiencing depression may also want to avoid sugar and caffeine to see how it affects their mood. Too much of either can lead to a crash or fatigue. Because of increased susceptibility to its stimulating effect, people experiencing anxiety should also avoid all sources of caffeine, including chocolate.
Vitamins and supplements. Iron deficiency can cause fatigue and worsen depression. Good sources of dietary iron are found in oysters, meat, poultry, fish, green leafy vegetables, wine, and acidic foods cooked in an iron pan. Iron supplements should not be taken unless a deficiency has been diagnosed, because too much can cause oxidative damage.
Deficiencies in the B vitamins can create disturbances in mood and mental processes. Vitamin B folic acid, or folate, is needed to make SAMe (S-adenosyl-L-methionine), which appears to increase levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that affects mood. Folate is found in dried peas and beans, dark green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, and wheat germ. Vitamin B12 is also needed for the production of SAMe and is found in dairy, eggs, poultry, fish, and meat. Oral contraceptives can deplete the body of Vitamin B6, which is needed to make serotonin, dopamine, and the hormone melatonin. Vitamin B6 supplementation may help alleviate depression related to premenstrual syndrome. Good sources of Vitamin B6 are found in turkey, tuna, lentils, potatoes, and bananas.
Herbal remedies. St. John’s wort extract, widely prescribed in Germany to treat mild to moderate depression, is noted in Phytomedicine 1995, to significantly relieve such symptoms as sadness, worthlessness, and fatigue. Recent research, reported in Pharmacopsychiatry 1997, suggests that St. John’s wort extract has an antidepressant action by inhibiting the reuptake of neurotransmitters serotonin, neorepinephrine, and dopamine, thereby making them more available to the brain. Ginkgo biloba, which has been shown (Am J Therapeutics, 1996) to increase concentration and memory, may also relieve depression in elderly people.
Extensively studied, the primary healing plant remedy used to treat anxiety is kava extract, which has active ingredients that may have antianxiety effects. Other botanicals, not well studied but safely used historically to treat anxiety, include passion flower and valerian.
Research on how to improve the brain’s functioning continues, with the aging generation of the baby boom eagerly awaiting identification of protective foods and plants. In the meantime, Lutz reminds us that we can make some improvements now in our mental health by assessing the soundness of our nutrition. Ask yourself the following questions. How much do you eat? When? What types of food? Are you getting enough water, adequate protein, lots of complex carbohydrates and fruits and vegetables? What nutrients are you sparing or restricting? How much caffeine and alcohol do you take? Let your answers guide you to make some corrective changes. If you need help, seek the counsel of a licensed, registered dietician.
Caveat. If you experience depression or anxiety that is severe, recurrent, or constant, it’s important that you seek expert medical care. Accurate diagnosis is critical to determining the appropriate treatment. Biochemical or physical causes need to be ruled out. For example, low thyroid function can cause depression that can be successfully treated with prescription thyroid medication. Additionally, the need for psychotherapeutic drugs and/or psychotherapy should be evaluated. For example, antidepressant medication may be required to relieve utter hopelessness or suicidal thoughts. Or cognitive behavior therapy may be necessary to relieve anxiety by teaching relaxation techniques and facilitating the development of better coping skills in stressful situations.