BY TRACY McCUBBIN MD ABOIM, ABEM

These are unprecedented times and our holiday season is forced to look quite different this year.  Most of us feel some unease, anxiety and even depression from the events of the last 10 months.  Mental health issues are up 38% over last year. Let’s look at the food-mood relationship and how you could be inadvertently sabotaging your mental health. Then we will discuss how to use healthy brain foods and supplements to boost those happy, holiday thoughts.  

Maybe it is no coincidence that food and mood are just a letter apart.  It’s a delicate relationship that can spin out of control if you are not careful. Even if you maintain a healthy diet, it is normal to desire high calorie, unhealthy treats when stressed and depressed. That creates a surge of your blood sugar, which then spikes and falls too low. This creates an urge for more sweets and carbs to boost that blood sugar back up. Now you are on an emotional rollercoaster of highs and lows.  It is ok to do this once in a while.   However, if you use food to battle the blues, you are going to lose the war.  It will become a vicious cycle that is hard to break. 

The science behind this is solid. When one consumes highly processed carbohydrates, the high dietary glycemic load results in compensatory responses to lower blood glucose. This triggers the secretion of autonomic counter-regulatory hormones such as cortisol, adrenaline, growth hormone and glucagon.  Research shows that these counter-regulatory hormones cause changes in anxiety, irritability and hunger.  This recurrent cycle is associated with mood disorders.   

It is best to consume highly nutritious, low glycemic index foods to keep blood sugar and mood stable.  There are long term mental health effects to eating well. Research has shown that the Mediterranean, Anti-Inflammatory Diet that is full of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean protein can help keep depression at bay. Eating healthy can stabilize your mood and keep you out of the danger zone where it feels like only a cupcake can save the day! Let’s take a look at how food can help boost your mood.  

This is your brain on food.

Our brain is an organ with very high metabolic and nutrient demands. On average, the brain consumes 20% of our daily calorie intake or around 400 calories per day. It is composed of fat and contains high concentrations of cholesterol and Omega-3 fatty acids.  

Ok, so What Should I Eat?

Fatty Fish

Wild caught salmon and other fish are key Omega-3 fatty acids which form an integral part of the cell membrane around our brain and nerve cells and influence many essential processes in the central nervous system.  These are essential fats that you must obtain through your diet because your body cannot produce them on its own.  The omega 3 and omega 6 pathway use the same enzymes and cofactors to make the more beneficial fatty acids. Our Western diet is known as the SAD (Standard American Diet) in the medical literature in part because of the high omega 6 content with an omega 6 to omega 3 ratio of 16:1!   We need both but in a balanced ratio of roughly 5:1.  

Good Quality Protein 

Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers in the body. Their job is to transmit signals from nerve cells to target cells. These target cells may be in muscles, glands, or other nerve cells.  

They play an important role in mood and behavior. Production of your neurotransmitters such as serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine depend on adequate building blocks of amino acids, so it is important to have plenty of good quality protein in your diet.  B vitamins are essential for methylation and necessary to break down your protein into those important amino acids.

Fermented foods

Fermented foods such as kimchi, yogurt, kefir, kombucha and sauerkraut may improve gut health and mood.  The gut microbiome (a broad term referring to all the microbial organisms like bacteria and viruses living in the human gut) plays a role in brain health.  Research shows a connection between healthy gut bacteria and lower rates of depression.  The gut microbiome interacts with the brain in bidirectional ways using neural and inflammatory signaling pathways.

Dark Chocolate

Chocolate is rich in many mood-boosting compounds.  It is high in healthy flavonoids, which have been shown to increase blood flow to your brain, reduce inflammation and boost brain health, all of which regulate mood.  Chocolate has a high hedonic rating, meaning it has pleasurable taste, texture and smell.  Choose dark chocolate (70% or higher cocoa) which is higher in flavonoids and lower in sugar.  

What does not work?  

Inflammatory foods such as soft drinks, refined grains, red meat, highly processed foods and margarine.  Avoid these during the holidays and during times of stress.  Now we do not intend for you to pass on all of your favorite holiday food traditions.  Just stay mindful and follow these guidelines for a healthy balance.

Radiance Functional Medicine wishes you a wonderful holiday season! Below is a delicious recipe that you can make for holiday dessert or a lovely holiday gift!  

Cranberry Dark Chocolate Holiday Bliss Bites

Makes approx. 20 small bites

Ingredients

• 1 cup raw cashews, divided

• 3 tablespoons pure maple syrup

• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

• ½ teaspoon sea salt

• 1 ¼ cups old-fashioned oats divided 

(use certified gluten free if needed)

• ¼ cup dried cranberries

• ¼ cup *mini dark chocolate chips or chopped dark chocolate bar

Instructions

1. Place 3/4 cup of the cashews in a food processor and process until nut butter forms, about 7 minutes.

2. Scrape down the sides of the food processor bowl, and add the maple syrup, vanilla, and sea salt. Process until incorporated, scraping down the sides and bottom of the food processor bowl with a rubber spatula as needed.

3. Add 1 cup of the oats, the remaining ¼ cup cashews, and the dried cranberries. Pulse in 12 short pulses to chop and combine.

4. Transfer mixture to a bowl and use your hands or a spoon to mix in the remaining ¼ cup oats and dark chocolate. 

5.  With slightly wet hands, shape 1 tablespoon portions of dough into balls or use a small cookie scoop.  Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

*We like to use Enjoy Life brand mini dark chocolate chips.

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