Among other things, your body is a chemical factory – breaking down everything you eat into a collection of chemicals and compounds and then reassembling them to build muscle, fuel growth and movement, heal damaged cells, fight infection, and much more. So it makes sense that whatever you consume is likely to influence how you feel – physically, mentally, and emotionally. Have the chef salad for lunch, you feel one way. Chow down on a Big Mac and fries, and you feel entirely different.
Dr. Candida Fink, MD is a board certified child and adolescent psychiatrist who specializes in several areas including mood and anxiety disorders and dual diagnoses of developmental disabilities and mental illness. She treats children, teens, and young adults with a range of concerns including ADHD, anxiety disorders, OCD, autism, pediatric mood disorders, and mental health issues in school settings.
Dr. Fink has co-authored two books – The Ups and Downs of Raising a Bipolar Child (with Judith Lederman, Simon and Schuster, 2003) and Bipolar Disorder for Dummies (with Joe Kraynak, John Wiley & Sons, 2005, third edition 2015). She has been featured nationally and locally in broadcast, print, and online media coverage and is a frequent speaker on mental health topics for community and school-based audiences.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
Many people living with mood disorders have discovered that eating right plays an important role in helping them manage their moods.
Most medical experts agree that if certain foods bring discomfort, they can contribute to a dip in mood, but so far food doesn’t appear to be a primary cause of psychiatric disorders. If you suspect that you may have a food allergy or intolerance, consult a specialist for a thorough evaluation, but question any claims that you can fix bipolar disorder or clinical depression solely through nutritional management.
Manage Your Diet, Manage Your Moods
Maintaining a steady diet can help maintain steady moods. Your mom probably already taught you the basics, but here’s a reminder:
- Eat regularly – three full meals or several small meals throughout the day.
- Don’t skip meals, especially breakfast.
- Eat a well-balanced diet; MyPyramid.gov is a good place to start.
- Consume caffeine and alcohol in moderation, if at all.
If you feel tired right after lunch, try eating more protein and vegetables and less sugar and other simple carbohydrates (see the following section). Also, try eating smaller meals.
Carbohydrates = energy, which is why a balanced breakfast that includes carbohydrates is so important. Carbohydrates deliver energy almost instantly, whereas the body needs additional time to break down fats and proteins into usable fuel for the brain. Eating throughout the day, and including carbohydrates is essential to keeping your brain from “running on empty.”
Downers: Sugar and Simple Carbohydrates
Junk foods have a well-earned reputation. They typically provide a quick mood and energy boost followed 30 to 60 minutes later by a crash. Foods such as white rice, potato chips, cookies, crackers, and pasta often take your body on a roller-coaster ride of sugar highs and lows.
Sugars and simple carbohydrates trigger a dramatic boost in blood-sugar levels that your body must respond to in order to survive. As your blood-sugar rises, your pancreas dumps insulin into your system to convert excess sugar to fat for storage. With a large rush of insulin, your blood-sugar drops, making you feel sleepy or cranky and often hungry for more sweets.
Cut down on junk foods and replace simple carbohydrates (most breads and pastas, potatoes, and highly processed foods) with complex carbohydrates at least some of the time if possible. Unlike sugars and simple carbohydrates that dump raw energy into your system, whole-grain products, vegetables, and fresh fruits contain complex carbohydrates that enter your system gradually, preventing extreme fluctuations in your blood-sugar levels. They still provide your body and brain with the fuel it needs to function, but they do so without shifting your system into roller coaster mode.
Feel Good Proteins
Protein is typically associated with muscle, but it also contributes to many other areas of the body and how the body functions. The basic building blocks of proteins are amino acids, several of which act as neurological regulators. When you consume protein, your body immediately breaks it down into amino acids so it can transport them to where your body needs them. One of these amino acids, tyrosine, is a building block of excitatory neurotransmitters – dopamine and norepinephrine – which can increase energy, make you feel more alert, and improve performance.
No need to go overboard and eat only protein and veggies as some diets call for, but consuming a sufficient amount of protein can enhance mood stability.
Countries high in fish consumption seem to have lower rates of depression. My co-host of Bipolar Beat thinks this is because fishing makes people happy. Some studies have shown that the Omega-3 fatty acids in fish have a positive effect on brain chemistry that helps stabilize moods. Although I do not see Omega-3 supplements as a cure for depression or bipolar disorder I do recommend these supplements to all of my patients. Adding a little more fish to your menu may help establish a more balanced diet, although that must be balanced with the risk of mercury exposure, which is especially important for women in their childbearing years to keep in mind.
Some studies have shown that people on low-fat diets tend to become grumpy and hostile. Researchers conjecture that fat stimulates hormones that affect the brain chemistry related to mood stability. Whatever the reason, most nutritionists recommend a diet with a certain percentage of fat, typically in the range of 25-35 percent of an individual’s total calorie intake. But keep in mind that not all fat is created equal. Of that 25-35 percent of dietary fat:
- Less than 7 percent should come from saturated fats (from meat and dairy).
- Less than 1 percent should come from trans-saturated fats (hydrogenated fats).
- The rest should come from unsaturated fats (liquid vegetable oils and fish oils).
Feel Good Vitamins
Many vitamins and minerals contribute to mood stability, but vitamins D and B (that’s not Depression and Bipolar) are often singled out in discussions of mood-enhancing vitamins:
- Vitamin D: Your body creates its own vitamin D, especially when you’re getting enough sunlight. In the winter, people with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), often cycle into depression, partially due to lack of sunlight leading to a drop in vitamin D production. Consult your doctor or nutritionist to determine whether you should be taking a vitamin D supplement, but don’t overdo it – too much can be toxic.
- B complex vitamins: B-complex vitamins consist of B1 (thiamine), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B6 (pyridoxine), B7 (biotin), B12 (cobalamin), and folic acid (folate or folacin), all of which your body uses to build cells, particularly nerve cells. Taking them together in the appropriate relative concentrations is important, because too much of one can cause a deficiency of another.
- Iron: Low iron stores are usually due to dietary deficiencies – and can cause fatigue, muscle aches, and other problems that can add to mood instability. Women are particularly vulnerable to Iron deficiency. Check with your doctor though to determine whether you need iron replacement.
For additional information about the use of vitamins, minerals, and supplements in mood management, check out “Alternative and Complementary Treatments for Bipolar Disorder.”
What about Chocolate?
Chocolate is a well-known mood booster, and for good reasons. It contains several mood boosters: a dash of sugar to increase energy and serotonin levels, a pinch of phenylethylamine (a brain chemical that your body releases when you fall in love), smidgens of theobromine and magnesium to enhance brain function, a touch of caffeine to make you more alert, and a few grams of protein to boost the excitatory neurotransmitters.
Of course, too much chocolate can give you a bellyache, which is a definite downer, but a touch of chocolate may be just what the doctor ordered to get you over that mid-afternoon speed bump.
How do you feel after you eat?
We often crave the foods that make us feel the worst – caffeine, alcohol, sugars, and simple carbohydrates. Becoming more aware of how your favorite foods make you feel can help you identify which foods you should be eating and which ones you may want to cut back on.
- Record how you feel before eating.
- Eat your meal or snack.
- Jot down what you’ve eaten, including the amount.
- Record how you feel 30 and 60 minutes after eating – energetic, focused, tired, light-headed, wobbly, whatever.
Over the course of a week or so, develop a list of foods that make you feel great and others that make you feel lousy.
Keep in mind: A diet that’s too restrictive won’t help with mood stability – it will only cause feelings of deprivation that lead to rebound bad eating behaviors. Including some treats and cheats into your eating plan is important, and it’s just as important to let yourself enjoy them without guilt. Worrying too much about food is just as damaging as not being concerned about it at all.
Please share your good mood foods (and not so good mood foods). Which foods seem to help you maintain a stable and healthy mood? Which foods tend to bring you down? Are there any foods or drinks that make you feel manic or anxious or give you the jitters? Can you identify foods you crave but try to avoid because they seem to destabilize your moods?
If you happen to be a nutritionist, we would also appreciate any insights you can share on mood-stabilizing foods, too!