No matter what challenges your day brings, it's easier to face them when we’re in a good mood. The scientific community still has much to learn about how our diet influences our moods, but while we don't have the whole story yet, we certainly have some clues. Here's a look at my top 4 tips for improving your mood through diet.
Tip #1: Limit or Eliminate Sources of Arachidonic acid.
We’ve known those eating plant-based diets tend to have healthier mood states—less tension, anxiety, depression, anger, hostility, and fatigue, but how? A study randomized overweight men and women into a low-carb, high-fat diet, or high-carb, low-fat diet for a year. The results were similar to epidemiological studies showing diets high in carbohydrate and low in fat and protein are associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression, and have beneficial effects on psychological wellbeing.
But the overall amount of fat in the test subject’s diet didn’t significantly change, but the type of fat did. Their arachidonic acid intake fell to zero. Arachidonic acid is an inflammatory omega-6 fatty acid that can adversely impact mental health via neuroinflammation. High blood levels have been associated with a greater likelihood of suicide risk and major depressive episodes. Americans are exposed to arachidonic acid primarily through chicken and eggs. But when we remove chicken and eggs, and other meat, we can eliminate preformed arachidonic acid from our diet.
In another study, overweight or diabetic employees of a major insurance corporation received either weekly group instruction on a whole food plant-based diet or no diet instruction for five and a half months. There was no portion size restriction, no calorie counting, no carb counting. No change in exercise. No meals were provided, but the company cafeteria did start offering daily whole food plant-based options.
Participants in the plant-based intervention group reported improved digestion, increased energy, and better sleep than usual at week 22 compared with the control group. They also reported a significant increase in physical functioning, general health, vitality, and mental health.
Tip #2: Try To Eat 8 Servings of Fruits and Vegetables Daily
I know eating an entirely plant-based diet may not be realistic for some. But what if we increase our fruit and veg intake as much as possible? A systematic review of research found consuming fruits and vegetables “was associated with increased psychological well-being.” Another study showed a straight-line increase between how much more fruits and veggies people started eating, and their change in life satisfaction over time.
Increased fruit and vegetable consumption appeared predictive of increased happiness, life satisfaction, and well-being up to 0.24 life-satisfaction points. That’s equal to the psychological gain of going from unemployed to getting a job. Using the same dataset but looking for mental illness, researchers concluded “eating fruit and vegetables may help to protect against future risk of clinical depression and anxiety.” A systematic review and meta-analysis of dozens of studies found “every 100-gram increased intake of fruit (that’s about half an apple) was associated with a 3 percent reduced risk of depression.”
We’ve been talking about associations. Yes, “a healthy diet may reduce the risk of future depression or anxiety but being diagnosed with depression or anxiety today could also lead to lower fruit and vegetable intake…”. However, a randomized controlled trial in which young adults were randomized to a diet-as-usual group, encouragement to eat more fruits and veggies, or a third group given two servings of fruits and vegetable a day to eat over and above their regular diet. And the ones given fruits and veggies “showed improvements in their psychological well-being with increases in vitality, flourishing, and motivation within just two weeks.”
Tip #3: Drink More Water
Although it is well known water is essential for human survival, only recently have we begun to understand its role in the maintenance of brain function. Even mild dehydration, caused by exercising on a hot day, has been shown to change brain function.
Current findings suggest our mood states may also be positively influenced by water consumption. In 2013, the first study to investigate the effects of mild dehydration on a variety of feelings was published. The most important effects of fluid deprivation were increased sleepiness and fatigue, lower levels of vigor and alertness, and increased confusion. But as soon as they gave them some water, the effects on alertness, happiness, and confusion were immediately reversed. Bonus Tip: Cold water absorbs into your body about 20% faster and room-temperature or warm water.
Tip #4: Increase Berry Intake
The consumption of berries can enhance “beneficial signaling in the brain.” “Plant foods…are our primary source of…antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds,” but some plant foods may be better than others. One cup of blueberries a day can improve cognition among older adults, as shown in this randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.
A single serving of berries may improve mood. A “double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study” in which kids were asked a series of questions. Before and after drinking the placebo, no significant change, but two hours after consuming about two cups of blueberries, their positive mood scores significantly improved. They felt more enthusiastic, alert, inspired and attentive. They saw the same results in young adults, ages 18 through 21 as the seven- to 10-year-old children.
Aim to eat a diet rich in wholesome foods to boost your mood but also your overall health. It’s unreasonable to expect to make all these changes at once and stick by them. But little by little, make alterations to your diet, accommodating your own unique needs and wants using food you can afford and are willing to eat. You might recognize that a healthy, whole diet is best for your symptoms, but the struggle to buy all organic produce, or free-range chicken due to cost or time constraints, can create an additional stressor. You don’t have to be perfect, simply do your best.
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