How to Improve Your Mood through Diet

June 1st, 2009

Improve Your Mood Through DietAre you depressed, anxious, irritable, tired, overwhelmed or emotionally fragile? These types of mood disorders have become shockingly common, and in many cases, can easily be resolved.

Depression and anxiety in particular have become so prevalent that it’s extremely common for people to be taking medication for one or even both of these mood disorders. In fact, the incidence of depression and anxiety has tripled since 1990 and more than a quarter of the adult population in the United States suffers from one or more mood disorders.

What You Need to Know About Mood Disorders

The American Psychiatric Association publishes a guide called the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) that is used worldwide by psychiatrists to diagnose and treat mental disorders. In the United States, this guide is the standard for classifying mental disorders, and although many psychiatrists rely on this guide as if it were based on hard evidence, the mental disorders described in it were included based on peer consensus. In other words, members of the American Psychiatric Association determined the existence of each mental disorder through a vote.

The DSM includes 374 mental disorders which is 10 times the number of disorders included in the original 1952 version. Many experts feel that literally anyone could be pulled of the street and be diagnosed with one of the disorders listed in the DSM. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than a quarter of the population is suffering from a diagnosable mental disorder, and according to the World Health Organization, 450 million people are suffering from mental disorders worldwide. This amounts to the entire population of the United Kingdom, Russia, Australia, France, Italy, Germany and Canada combined! Can this many people really be mentally ill?

The 374 mental disorders listed in the DSM make it very easy to prescribe medication to someone who doesn’t need it and this is an unfortunate contribution to the $27 billion dollars of revenue per year that psychiatric medications generate. A study done in 2006 raises even more suspicion. Of the psychiatrists voting on the mental disorders to be included in the DSM, 56% of them had at least one financial tie to a drug company.

Are You Mentally Ill or Just Nutritionally Deficient?

People who are forced to endure tragic life experiences such as a divorce or the death of a loved one will often struggle with some very genuine and difficult emotions. In contrast, most people who are treated for mood disorders encounter similar emotions such as depression, anxiety, fear or anger, but for no apparent reason. While it’s easy to blame this on genetic disorders and think that medication is the only answer, do you honestly believe that this is the case for a quarter of the population?

A balanced mood requires a corresponding balance in the levels of neurotransmitters that have a strong influence on our mental well being. A deficiency of any such neurotransmitter, including serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, adrenaline, GABA and the endorphins, will likely result in an unpleasant mood. What’s important to realize is that these influential neurotransmitters are derived from the amino acids found in the high protein whole foods that we should already be eating to support good health in general.

Over the coarse of the past century, we’ve deviated significantly from the type of diet and lifestyle that we evolved on. We’re eating much more sugar and refined carbohydrates than ever and aren’t eating nearly enough of the whole foods that support neurotransmitter production and balanced moods. Furthermore, the stressful and fast paced lifestyle that many of us live depletes neurotransmitter levels faster than we can replenish them.

Bad Mood Foods

By altering the body’s ability to produce or utilize neurotransmitters, certain foods can literally make you miserable. Even if this weren’t the case, many of these foods lack the amino acid precursors that are needed for neurotransmitter production. The worst offenders are sugar, refined carbohydrates, grains containing gluten, dairy, processed fats, and soy. Although not all of these foods effect everyone negatively, they are the most common dietary causes of mood disorders and poor health in general.

Although dairy and eggs are both excellent sources of nutrition that contain a good supply of the amino acid precursors needed to produce neurotransmitters, both foods have a strong potential to cause unhealthy and imbalanced moods. Because each of these foods are a common source of food sensitivities, they can cause a significant amount of internal stress that will compromise health in general and rapidly deplete neurotransmitter levels.

Other Mood Killers

Chronic stress is a very common part of modern life, and like food sensitivities, it can significantly deplete many of the neurotransmitters required for a balanced mood. As such, stress alone can easily cause a wide variety of mood disorders.

Similar to stress, stimulants such as caffeine are another common cause of mood problems. Because they’re often used to compensate for a lack of natural energy and alertness, they force the production of neurotransmitters that are already at low levels and cause further depletion.

Good Mood Foods

The foods that will keep you in a good mood and prevent you from being incorrectly diagnosed with a mood disorder are many of the same foods that you should be eating to promote optimal health. These are the basic natural whole foods, such as meat, fish and dairy, that are high in mood boosting amino acids.

Fish and grass fed meats are excellent choices because of the omega-3 fatty acids they contain which will further promote proper brain function and balanced moods.

Another important dietary consideration that will help to promote balanced moods and prevent mood disorders is Metabolic Typing. Because we each have unique and individual nutritional needs, eating the wrong foods or the wrong proportions of protein, fat and carbohydrates can easily promote imbalance and mental instability.

Other Mood Boosters

While high protein foods are needed to supply amino acids, vitamin D is needed to process these amino acids into the neurotransmitters that promote balanced moods. The best source of vitamin D is adequate sun exposure, but it can also be obtained through supplementation.

In addition to high protein foods, some people who are extremely deficient, possibly as a result of genetic predisposition, will need to temporarily take supplements to restore normal neurotransmitter levels. In most cases, this would require the amino acid precursors to the deficient neurotransmitters and will be discussed in more detail throughout the rest of the article.

Exercise is another natural mood booster that can raise levels of several influential neurotransmitters. However, it’s only a temporary solution and exercising without the physical capacity for it can deplete these same neurotransmitters and do more harm than good. If you have the capacity to use exercise as a mood boosting activity, it would be in your best interest to consider high intensity interval training instead of exercising at a moderate intensity for a long duration.

Depression, Anxiety and Irritability

Common mood disorders such as depression, low self esteem, obsessiveness, anger, irritability, fear and anxiety are all symptoms of a deficiency in the neurotransmitter serotonin. Possible physical symptoms of serotonin deficiency include heart and intestinal issues, problems with sleep, muscle pain, migraine headaches, and cravings for sugar, carbohydrates, and drugs such as alcohol and cocaine. Serotonin is typically the first and most common neurotransmitter to be depleted by unhealthy habits and cause mood disorders.

The most effective and natural method of restoring serotonin levels is through it’s amino acid precursor tryptophan and the best source is the high protein foods previously recommended. Because the conventionally farmed varieties of these foods tend to contain far less tryptophan in particular, it’s important to buy them from grass fed and free range sources.

Serotonin levels can also be increased by supplementing with 5-HTP or with tryptophan directly. 5-HTP is derived from tryptophan and is the immediate precursor to serotonin. People who don’t get results with one of these supplements often have success with the other. When neither supplement brings results, St. John’s Wart is another alternative that many people have had good results with.

Two notorious substances that contribute to depletion of serotonin and should be avoided are caffeine and aspartame. Caffeine directly inhibits the production of serotonin while aspartame, a popular artificial sweetener that you shouldn’t be using anyway, can block serotonin receptors. Aspartame is commonly sold as NutraSweet or Equal and is commonly found in diet sodas and other products that are advertised as sugar free.

Fatigue, Lack of Motivation and Poor Concentration

Mental problems such as apathy, lack of motivation and difficulty concentrating are often the result of a deficiency in dopamine, adrenaline and norepinephrine. These substances are members of the catecholamine family and are released by the adrenal glands to keep us energized and alert. Possible physical characteristics that are associated with catecholamine deficiency include fatigue, weight gain and a pronounced need for additional sleep.

The amino acid tyrosine is the precursor to the chatecholamines and can be used to naturally restore sufficient levels. Tyrosine is commonly found in the high protein whole foods previously recommended, and if necessary, can also be taken in supplement form. When tyrosine supplementation fails to provide the desired results, phenylalanine is another amino acid worth trying. It can be converted into tyrosine, and in turn, be used to produce chatecholamines.

Because chatecholamine deficiency can be exacerbated by stress, exercise and stimulants such as caffeine, they should be avoided or moderated closely. Although exercise and caffeine may temporarily make you feel better, you’ll likely pay a price for it afterward.

Inability to Cope With Stress

People who easily feel overwhelmed by stress, have trouble relaxing, or are easily upset and frustrated are likely to be suffering from adrenal fatigue. In addition to the chatecholamines previously discussed, the adrenal glands produce the hormone cortisol which gives us the ability to cope with stress. Adrenal fatigue is usually the result of excessive internal or external stress and is often characterized by wide variety of symptoms included fatigue, weakness, shakiness, low blood sugar, and heart palpitations. Many symptoms of adrenal fatigue can also overlap with a number of mood disorders.

Eating high protein foods, especially those containing saturated fat, is an important part of rebuilding adrenal function. Contrary to mainstream beliefs, saturated fat does not cause heart disease and is essential to good health. Another extremely important aspect of rebuilding adrenal function is reducing mental stress and eliminating internal sources of physical stress such as food sensitivities and chronic infections.

In addition to eating better and reducing stress, you can also supplement your diet with GABA which is both an amino acid and neurotransmitter that can help to turn off the stress response and keep you calm and relaxed.

Oversensitivity and Fragility

People who are emotionally fragile, oversensitive, have chronic physical pain, or have experienced significant emotional trauma are likely to have a deficiency of endorphins. This well known and potent group of neurotransmitters relieves pain and promotes a general sense of well being.

Because stimulation and exercise are effective at promoting endorphin production, many people rely too heavily on these types of activities to boost their mood. By doing so, they often make an already existing deficiency even worse.

As with the mood disorders already discussed, high protein foods are the best way to provide the amino acid precursors needed to produce endorphins. People who need additional supplementation can try DLPA which is a combination of two forms of the amino acid phenylalanine. Because L-phenylalanine is a precursor to the stimulating chatecholamines, D-phenylalanine (DPA) may be more effective for people who may find DLPA to be excessively stimulating.

Taking Action to Improve Your Moods

Regardless of which neurotransmitters you may be most deficient in, your first coarse of action should be to increase your intake of the natural whole foods that are high in protein and filled with amino acids. At the same time, you should also be eliminating the processed and unhealthy foods that promote mood disorders. You can maximize the benefits of these changes by incorporating them in conjunction with the Metabolic Typing diet. Once you’re comfortable with these dietary changes, focusing on the additional aspects of a healthy lifestyle may improve your moods even further.

Before you consider using any supplements, I highly recommend that you read The Mood Cure by Julia Ross. This book is an excellent resource that will help you identify which neurotransmitter deficiencies are likely to be causing your unpleasant moods and will provide the specific information you’ll need to put together an effective supplement protocol.

This article is part of Real Food Wednesdays

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