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Q&A: Can Food Help Mood?

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Q: Are there foods I can eat to help my mood swings?

A: Yes. Although scientists can’t seem to agree on precisely how food affects mood, most people at one time or another turn to food to feel better.

Certain foods can increase the amount of serotonin, endorphins, and other mood-altering nerve chemicals the brain produces. Your overall diet is important to look at too. Skipping meals and overusing of caffeine can cause havoc with mood, as can eating junky foods.

A few suggestions:

When you’re feeling especially tense or stressed, eat complex carbohydrate-rich foods, which are good relaxers. Have a whole-wheat bagel for breakfast or a bowl of garbanzo beans or brown rice with veggies for lunch or dinner. Add a carbohydrate-rich snack to your day, such as whole-grain crackers with peanut butter. Carbs are called “comfort foods” for a good reason.

If you’re feeling down and your energy level is on the low side, try adding more lean, high-protein foods like salmon or turkey breast to your diet. These foods can improve mood by making you more alert and enhancing your energy level. Remember this rule: carbohydrates calm, proteins perk.

Watch carefully your intake of sugars other than those from whole fruits. Added sugars are found everywhere–in cereal, pastry, candy, carbonated beverages, and all manner of prepared foods like ketchup, canned vegetables, and yogurt. After an initial jolt of energy from the sugar entering your body, you’ll fall into a slump afterward, called the sugar blues. Eliminate all added sugar and see if your mood swings don’t improve after a week or two.

To heighten your stress-buffering serotonin levels and improve your mood and your overall resilience, look to the omega-3 fats found in cold-water fish, flaxseed, and walnuts. Sprinkle walnuts on salads. Try to eat tuna, trout, mackerel, or salmon twice a week or take a couple of fish oil capsules every day. Flax seed oil is a fine substitute.

Many nutritionally oriented doctors believe that a diet low in vitamin B-6 can contribute to an inadequate manufacture of serotonin and other brain chemicals. To boost your B-6, eat more poultry, whole grains, bananas, avocados, and especially dark green leafy vegetables. Taking a good B-complex vitamin is a great way to ensure you’re covered.

And remember, what you eat is only one factor in improving mood. Getting regular exercise and enough sleep, not drinking too much alcohol, and not smoking are essential to mood and overall well-being.

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