Does your mind feel sharp? Does your mood feel balanced? Is your mental clarity consistent? Feel-good substances are already around in their hordes, but how does what you eat really affect these qualities?
In an average week in Britain:
* We drink 1 billion cups of tea, 154 million coffees, 250 million sugared or caffeinated soft drinks and 120 million alcoholic drinks
* Smoke 1.5 billion cigarettes
* Consume 6 million kilograms of sugar and 2 million kilograms of chocolate
* Take 2 million antidepressants
* Puff our way through 10 million joints
* Pop 1 million tabs of Ecstasy
And do these work? Obviously they do to some degree, or they wouldn’t be so popular. They may boost energy, relieve anxiety or help us recover from a hard day’s work, but the highs we can gain from these can evaporate all too quickly, leaving us with a nasty aftermath and in a cycle of dependency. Mood swings, anxiety, exhaustion and even addiction can result from all that popping, pouring and puffing – a rollercoaster of ‘highs and lows’.
Meanwhile, psychotherapy is becoming increasingly popular. More people are now seeking professional help, and more and more frequently with at least 10 million visits a year.
Other avenues like life-changing courses, self help books, hypnotherapy, NLP, yoga and meditation are also on the rise as we look to change our states of mind. All of these can help, but they are just one part of the puzzle.
A change in diet
Any intelligent person can recognise that our diets and environment have changed radically in the last 100 years. When you consider that the body and brain are entirely made from molecules derived from food, air and water and that simple molecules like alcohol can fundamentally affect the brain, isn’t it unlikely that changes in diet and the environment have had no effect on our mental health?
The evidence is there if you look for it. You can change how you think and feel by changing what you put into your mouth.
The rise of antidepressants
Antidepressant drugs like Prozac (SSRIs) work by preventing the body breaking down a brain chemical called serotonin, therefore keeping more in circulation in the brain, which improves your mood. The trouble is that these kinds of drugs induce unpleasant side effects in about a quarter of those who take them and severe reactions in a minority. Serotonin works to regulate mood and sleep cycles and we need to look for ways to enhance our natural production.
The natural alternative to SSRI drugs is to eat your way to happiness by choosing foods that contain tryptophan, a constituent of protein from which the body makes serotonin.
A study by Dr Philip Cowen from Oxford University’s psychiatry department investigated what would happen if you deprived people of tryptophan. He gave 15 volunteers who had a history of depression, but were currently fine, a nutritionally balanced drink that excluded tryptophan. Within seven hours, 10 out of 15 noticed a worsening of their mood and started to show signs of depression. On being given the same drink but this time with tryptophan added, their mood improved.
Eat Your Way to Happiness
If you want to eat your way to happiness the key is to follow a diet that keeps your blood sugar level even and provides plenty of tryptophan and omega-3 fats, which help you make and use serotonin in the brain. In practical terms this means:
* Avoid any form of sugar – in biscuits, cakes, confectionery, other sugary snacks and also foods with added sugar in the forms of syrups, dextrose and maltose.
* Reduce your intake of stimulants – alcohol, cigarettes and caffeine containing tea, coffee, chocolate and colas.
* Increase nutrient-rich foods – fruit, vegetables, herbs, wholefoods, nuts and seeds.
* Eat more sources of tryptophan – it’s especially rich in fish, turkey, chicken, cheese, beans, tofu, oats and eggs.
* Eat omega-3 rich oily fish – salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines or trout, two to three times a week.
* Eat raw, unsalted seeds and nuts. The best seeds are flax (or linseed), hemp, pumpkin, sunflower and sesame. You get more goodness out of them by grinding them first and sprinkling on cereal, soups and salads.
* Use cold-pressed seed oils. Choose an oil blend containing flaxseed oil or hemp oil for salad dressings and cold uses, such as drizzling on vegetables instead of butter. Don’t cook with these oils as their fats are easily damaged by heat.
* Minimise your intake of fried food, processed food and saturated fat from meat and dairy to prevent damage to brain fats.
Further details can be found in the book Optimum Nutrition for the Mind. I also recommend taking brain friendly supplements containing essential fats, phospholipids, vitamins and minerals.
Bioidentical hormones can also help lift your mood, progesterone relaxes and helps sleep and a combination cream of progesterone and oestrogen has been found helpful for anxiety and depression.