As we age, it is important that we use a holistic approach to stay feeling young as long as possible. The quick fixes or resets don’t work. It is a holistic approach integrated into our daily routines that make all the difference. And nothing is more important than our mental health! Did you know that the foods we choose can either improve or exacerbate mood issues? I’d like to share with you the most important nutrients and specific food recommendations that will help you to not only reduce the accelerated effects of aging, but to actually boost your mood and happiness.
Foods and Mood
The influence of nutrition on mood and mental health is more significant than you might think. For instance, consuming refined sugars and flours initially increases a pleasurable dopamine response, but can ultimately dampen that response resulting in heightened cravings. When over consumed, refined sugars and flours contribute to inflammation and an increased risk of low mood. Managing blood sugar by avoiding these types of foods is absolutely essential in addressing mood imbalances and supporting our dopamine sensitivity.
Increased consumption of alcohol also causes inflammation and depletes nutritional stores of thiamin and zinc, which has been linked to low mood. Excess alcohol can also interfere with the body’s ability to produce the happiness neurotransmitter, serotonin. High consumption of aspartame-containing drinks such as diet soft drinks may also decrease serotonin in the body.
Other potentially damaging foods include gluten which contributes to an inflammatory response in the body and impacts the firing of neurotransmitters, and caffeine-containing foods such as coffee that are linked to anxiety.
The Gut-Brain Connection
Diet choices also influence digestive health which is another important factor to consider as it is tightly linked to our mental health by way of the vagus nerve and the gut-brain connection. Imbalances in our gut microbiome are often triggered by unsupportive food choices, such as those mentioned above.
Our good gut bacteria produce feel-good neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. When our microbiome is out of balance, we may produce too much or too little of these neurotransmitters which can be associated with both gastrointestinal and mood issues. Also, imbalances in the gut microbiome may impact the proper elimination of excess estrogen, contributing to hormone-related mood issues. Finally, bad bacteria can increase gut inflammation which is associated with anxiety.
There is so much that we can do to support our microbiome and mood with foods and nutrients since our gut microbiome “talks” to our brain. One of the best family of foods to focus on are fermented foods because they naturally contain probiotics. Think sauerkraut, kimchi or miso that are easy to add as a condiment to your regular meals. Also important is consuming sufficient protein that helps to boost neurotransmitter levels. In particular, the amino acid tryptophan found in turkey and eggs brings on feelings of calm, relaxation and sleepiness and is a precursor to serotonin.
Healthy fats are another group of foods to include as they are associated with improved mood and memory and reduced inflammation. Foods containing omega 3 such as salmon or walnuts are good choices. I also love to regularly include foods high in selenium such as Brazil nuts since selenium is key to producing glutathione, the body’s master antioxidant which protects us from accelerated aging, memory decline and supports thyroid function.
Perceptions of Stress
Stress is a subjective word that is used a lot but is difficult to measure. Stress is generally thought of as being a negative or upsetting reaction to a particular stressor. This makes some sense since our day-to-day worries or overwhelm have led to the production of chronic high levels of stress hormones that are responsible for our symptoms of inflammation, gut issues and fatigue.
Remember that there are benefits of stress such as providing us with motivation to get up in the morning and accomplish things. We have been left with the perception that all stress is bad, which in turn stresses us even more when we feel any kind of stress response coming on! Symptoms to watch for that indicate your stress response needs attention include: salt cravings, mood issues such as depression, anxiety or brain fog, difficulty sleeping, frequent illness or weight management struggles.
The best tools for addressing stress include using a combination of food, nutrients and mindset techniques like breathwork, journaling or meditation. Foods can help by providing the nutrients needed to support the stress response. These include a wide variety of foods that contain nutrients such as magnesium, vitamin C, vitamins B5 & B6, and zinc. Some foods that are highest in these nutrients include clean animal protein sources, nuts like pumpkin or sesame seeds, vegetables such as dark, leafy greens, broccoli, bell peppers or shiitake mushrooms, and fruits such as papaya and avocado.
Calming teas and herbs can also support our stress response and some of my favourites include Tulsi (Holy basil) and Ashwagandha
Finally, moving our body is one of the most under-utilized mood-boosters. The right form of exercise elevates endorphins that elevate mood. This doesn’t mean that we want to do constant cardio that can raise our stress hormone, cortisol, even more. Achieving a balance between elevating our heart rate, maintaining our muscle mass and supporting muscle and joint mobility is ideal. You should feel energized rather than exhausted from your movement routine!
It’s important to start small with one food or lifestyle change at a time. That allows you to gain an early win that will fuel motivation for more progress. It’s amazing that the right changes in how you eat, live and move can have a big impact on how your body and brain function. Which idea will you start with