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Ask Dr. Scott About Food and Mood

Q: Dr. Scott, what is the connection between food and mood?

A: Any doctor who has been in practice for several years will learn about the tremendous influence the food we eat can have on our mood, the way we feel, and therefore how it can be a major element in determining how we behave, react and even think, when exposed to life’s stresses.

The most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States are anti-depressants. (Kessler et al., 2012) Depression usually isn’t really due to an emotional cause. Instead it develops when the frontal lobes of the brain do not activate like they should. That’s why most people who are depressed also cannot focus, concentrate, or remember things.

Take the amino acid tryptophan, which is present in all dairy and animal proteins and in many vegetable sources as well. It is an “essential” amino acid, which means it, along with seven other essential amino acids, must be present in your diet so that your body can manufacture all the thousands of different proteins and other substances it needs to build tissues.

If you eat an abundance of foods rich in tryptophan (such as fish, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, walnuts, bananas, or chicken in which it is well supplied) the brain will increase the manufacture of the neurotransmitter serotonin which lifts your mood, encourages relaxation and a sense of calm and well-being. (Kharrazian, 2013)

When tryptophan is very low in the diet research has shown that aggressive behavior increases, and when violently aggressive individuals are supplemented with tryptophan in their diet their aggression diminishes and their mood improves. Conversely, if you have an excess of it (which is hard to achieve from food alone, but not difficult from over supplementation) actual drowsiness can occur (as a result tryptophan has long been successfully used to treat insomnia, and this fact partially accounts for the value of a late night protein snack for many people). (Cuthbert, 2012) Studies also show that magnesium and vitamin B12 go a long way to triggering the formation of your body’s feel-good chemicals.

Almost everyone knows that stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol can alter your mood for better or worse, depending on the amount used and your degree of sensitivity, but it is not so widely realized that one of the most common mood altering substances is refined sugar, which is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream so that it produces an instant “high” in which energy is increased, tiredness vanishes (temporarily), and you’re on top of the world.

Unfortunately, the self-regulating mechanisms of the body that so efficiently deals with the potentially damaging high blood sugar, immediately pumps out substances such as insulin, making your blood sugar levels drop, and along with it your mood and energy. So the sugar-junkie once again boosts their energy levels through another “fix” of sugar-rich foods and/or drink (or by using caffeine, alcohol or tobacco which boost sugar levels through stimulation of the adrenal glands – That Coffee Buzz!). This cycle of blood sugar highs and lows, often associated with high-pressure lifestyle behaviors (too little sleep, too much activity and stimulation, either at work or play) is a recipe for disaster if prolonged, and is a major physical and emotional stress factor, leading all too often to symptoms of tiredness, depression and irritability.

Then there is the possibility of these things occurring in a person with underlying nutritional deficiencies, which compound and complicate these effects on your mind and mood. Activities such as dietary and lifestyle changes, yoga, weight or strength training, and other non-aerobic exercises have produced positive effects on psychological health. (Weinberg & Gould, 1999) It’s increasingly obvious in all branches of modern medicine that nutrition plays an essential (and often central) part in most health problems.

For decades we have seen many patients improve their mood swings dramatically by following dietary advice and taking nutritional supplements to stabilize their blood glucose levels, as well as taking ‘adaptogens’ to help the body better adapt to stress. The combination of a new diet and nutritional support completely changes their energy levels and brain function. Usually they can sleep better through the night and no longer crash in the afternoon, with their mood swings and irritability and depression coming under control.

  • Dr. Scott Cuthbert is the chief clinician at the Chiropractic Health Center in Pueblo, Colorado, as well as the author of two new textbooks and over 50 peer-reviewed research articles. PuebloChiropracticCenter.com.

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