WHAT makes you happy? Scientists say it could be as simple as your daily food and drink. They have shown that if you eat the right things you can prime your brain to remain positive and even ward off depression.A study led by scientists from King’s College London and published last month in the journal Biological Psychiatry confirmed that the omega-3 fatty acids found in mackerel, sardines and other oily fish can leave you less likely to get depression. But can your diet really make that much difference to your state of mind?
“What you eat plays a crucial role in mental health,” says dietitian and nutritionist Nigel Denby, director of the 132 Harley Street nutrition clinic. “A poor and erratic diet disrupts the body’s production of happiness hormones that can cause your mood to roller-coaster throughout the day.” Eating regularly is crucial, Denby says. “An occasional planned fast is fine and might produce feelings of euphoria as a result of your feeling you are doing something positive. But, in general, your brain needs to know it is getting a good supply of B vitamins, iron and other nutrients that are crucial for it to thrive.”
No single happy food can transform your mood on its own. “The effects are cumulative,” says nutrition expert Ian Marber. “It’s no good expecting an immediate response from a healthy choice if you eat poorly the rest of the time. Eat a varied and nutritious range of the foods shown to boost your mood to reap the benefits.”
Mackerel and sardines
These are among the oily fish that could contribute to a reduced risk of depression, researchers announced last month. Oily fish contain beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, which have a long list of health benefits and are also known to have antidepressant and anti-inflammatory properties. Previous studies have suggested that raising the intake of omega-3 “fish oils” can help to combat depression and the latest study, which included scientists from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London, suggested that even a short course (two weeks) of a nutritional supplement containing one such omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid (EPA) reduced the rates of new-onset depression to 10 per cent in a group of patients with hepatitis C, a chronic virus infection that triggers depression in 30 per cent of sufferers. “Eating oily fish a few times a week is highly recommended,” Denby says.
Having turmeric once a week can also improve your mood. The spice gets its bright yellow colour from curcumin, a compound that has been shown to increase levels of the brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine, both key components of a good mood. One recent study by Adrian Lopresti, of the school of psychology and exercise science at Murdoch University in Perth, showed that a 500g extract of curcumin taken twice daily for eight weeks was “significantly more effective than a placebo in improving several mood-related symptoms” in a group of volunteers with “a major depressive disorder”. Add black pepper to your meal to make it even more effective — Indian studies have shown that the main active component, piperine, can help the body to absorb curcumin.
Apples, pears and grapes
Eating more fruit and vegetables can have a powerful effect on your mood. Last year, researchers put this hypothesis to the test by asking a group of 281 university students to keep a 21-day food and mood dairy. Their results, published in the British Journal of Health Psychology, found a correlation between the amount of apples, pears and other fruit and vegetables consumed on one day and a positive mood on the next day. Although the researchers were unsure precisely why this happened, it could be down to boosted self-esteem. “If you plan to eat healthily and see it through for the day, you pat yourself on the back,” says Dearbhla McCullough, an independent psychologist. “You generally feel good about yourself for avoiding the crisps and chocolate.”
Turkey is one of the best sources of tryptophan, an essential amino acid that is converted in our bodies into serotonin, a neurotransmitter, or chemical in the brain. Low levels of serotonin are linked to depression, so increasing your intake of tryptophan (other sources include eggs and chicken) is a good move. A turkey sandwich gives an even bigger brain boost. Eating a slice or two of wholegrain bread triggers the body to release insulin, which in turn increases the amount of tryptophan that gets into your brain.
After studying the composition of blueberries, raspberries and strawberries, scientists from the Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies in Florida found that the chemicals they contained were similar in structure to valproic acid, a widely used prescription mood-stabilising drug. Reporting to the American Chemical Society, they added that tea and dark chocolate had similar benefits.
Nuts and seeds
“All nuts and seeds are great to include in the diet because they provide mood-boosting selenium,” says Denby. “Brazil nuts are among the richest supplies and just six a day give you the selenium you need for a mood boost.” Arizona State University researchers reported that high intakes of alpha-linolenic acid, a form of omega-3 fat found in walnuts, flaxseed and chip seeds, could keep you perked up mentally.
Antioxidant-rich dark chocolate contains mood-boosting compounds such as theobromine and phenylethylamine, and has been shown to help people cope with emotional stress. A report by the American Chemical Society shows that eating a little more than 25g of dark chocolate (about six squares) daily for two weeks reduces levels of stress hormones in the bodies of people feeling highly agitated. The daily treat also corrects other stress-related biochemical imbalances.
“There is some evidence that raising dopamine levels through a smart diet, and possibly supplementation, might help to raise mood,” says Marber. “The best way of achieving that is by eating foods rich in L-tyrosine, an amino acid that is an important component of dopamine. These include oats — a great source — seaweed and cocoa.” There are other reasons porridge is the best way to set your brain up for the day. “Oats help to stabilise blood glucose levels much better than sugary cereal or refined carbs,” Denby says. “As glucose is the brain’s main fuel, it really helps to avoid the kind of sugar crash that can send mood plummeting.”
Drinking two to four cups of black coffee a day could reduce depression and cut the risk of suicide by 50 per cent in men and women, according to a Harvard School of Public Health study. The researchers looked at the caffeine intake of 200,000 people in drinks such as coffee, cola and chocolate. They found the risk of suicide among adults who drank several cups of coffee a day was about half that of those who drank decaffeinated coffee or no coffee at all. More than six cups a day, however, can make you anxious.
Felice Jacka, a psychiatric health researcher at Deakin University in Victoria, says she expected red meat to have a negative effect on mood yet found the opposite to be true when she studied its effects on the mental health of 1000 women. Those who cut down on their consumption of lamb and beef, she discovered, were likelier to be depressed. “We found that they were twice as likely to have a diagnosed depressive or anxiety disorder as those consuming the recommended amount of around three servings of red meat a week,” Jacka says. According to Denby, lean red meat “is a good source of selenium and iron, low intakes of which are linked to low mood in adults”.
Eating plain yoghurt twice a day has a powerful effect on mood by reducing activity in areas of the brain associated with emotion and pain. It comes down to the probiotics — or beneficial bacteria — contained in yoghurt, which experts now think can affect brain function. It’s long been known that the brain sends signals to the gut, which is why stress can trigger irritable bowel syndrome and other gastrointestinal symptoms. Latest studies suggest that signals travel the opposite way too.
A group of young female subjects at the University of California were split into three groups: one group ate plain yoghurt with live bacterial cultures containing probiotic strains twice daily, another had a dairy product with no live bacteria and a third ate no dairy products. Before and after the month-long trial the women took part in an “emotional task” involving some stress. MRI scans showed that the yoghurt eaters had reduced activity in a brain network that included the somatosensory cortex — which receives sensory information — as well as in the prefrontal cortex, precuneus and basal ganglia, all of which handle aspects of emotion.
By Peta Bee
With thanks to The Australian
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