Food and Mood: Making the Connection, Part 1

Joleen Wilson - Dietary Manager

           Joleen Wilson, RD/LD, CNSC, CBIS

Written by Joleen Wilson, RD/LD, CNSC, CBIS, Dietitian for Pathway to Eating Disorders Treatment at Brookhaven Hospital

In a fast food world with rising food costs, good nutrition is often put on the back burner.  It is also easy to neglect personal health when you are dealing with anxiety, depression, or chemical dependency.  Poor nutrition can cause unstable moods and blood sugar, making mood disorders potentially worse, as well as making the risk of substance relapse higher.  In this blog series, I will speak to the effects that diet and exercise have on our mood and physical well being.

As a dietitian, I see many clients try and fail at a “low carb” diet, especially those with a psychiatric diagnosis.  This is because no or low-carbohydrate diets reduce the production of serotonin in the brain.  Serotonin is a neurotransmitter manufactured from the amino acid tryptophan with the help of nutrients such as B6, B12, and folic acid.  Eating carbohydrates allows tryptophan to enter the brain and product serotonin.  This helps regulate food cravings, mood, sleep patterns, and pain tolerance.

Remember that not all carbohydrates are created equal!  There are simple and complex carbohydrates.  Simple carbohydrates are things like soda, cookies, white bread/pasta that are digested quickly due to no or limited fiber.  These foods raise your glucose levels quickly, but usually then drop levels rapidly, making you reach for more. This is why carbs get a bad reputation for weight gain.  In addition, the wide swings in blood sugar with intake of simple carbs is often mirrored in the mood of the individual.  Individuals may experience an influx of serotonin with intake of simple carbs, but this quickly goes away, resulting in cravings for more serotonin i.e. another “hit” of simple carbs.  This behavior can mimic a drug addiction, and intake of sugary sweets can be just one addiction traded for another.  This is why it is important to eat on a schedule and limit intake of simple carbohydrates after treatment for chemical dependency, as weight gain can often occur after cessation of a substance, especially stimulants.

Complex carbohydrates are usually termed the “good carbs”.  They are more complex to break down (due to more carbon side chains on the molecule) and contain the magical benefit of fiber.  Fiber slows down digestion because it stays in the stomach longer.  Fiber also has other benefits, including relief from constipation, cholesterol reduction, and promoting the feeling of satiety or fullness (therefore decreasing the risk of overeating).  Examples include whole grain bread/pasta, oatmeal, bran cereal, and brown rice.  When we displace our intake of simple carbohydrates with more complex carbohydrates, our blood sugar and mood tend to be more stable.  Try to make “half your grains whole” by choosing a whole grain alternative over an enriched grain product 50% of the time.

Next time, I will talk about the role that protein, B vitamins, and other vitamins/minerals play in promoting mental wellness as we continue this blog series on the connection between food and mood.

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