How to de-stress: how food makes our brains happier

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What and how you eat can impact your mood, so we asked an expert for some de-stressing nutrition tips. 

You may have tried a whole host of things in the quest to shake off lockdown’s low mood, from meditation and walking to HIIT and Zoom calls. However, how many people are likely to maximise their nutrition as a way to combat the January blues?

“The link between mental health and nutrition is underestimated,” says Rebecca Williams, nutritionist at food supplement brand Huel. “However, there’s increasing evidence that suggests good nutrition significantly supports our mental health. The food we eat can impact a number of mechanisms involving neurotransmitters, hormones and other biological processes in the body.”

 Of course, nothing we eat will solve mental health issues, but there are foods and even certain ways of eating that make us feel more relaxed, less stressed out and happier. We asked Rebecca to explain all about the link between our diet and our mood

Why does food make us feel better?

Ever feel a little more cheery after eating something delicious? Well, you’re not just imagining that change in mood, according to Rebecca. “The hunger hormone ghrelin tells our brain it’s time to seek more food when our stomach is empty. It does this by stimulating the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that gives rise to positive feelings of pleasure,” she explains. But while you’re probably more familiar with dopamine being spoken about in regards to shopping or falling in love, “dopamine’s most important role in the body is to motivate us to eat,” Rebecca says. 

“It causes us to start ‘hunting’ for food – which these days is simply running to the snack cupboard for a chocolate biscuit. That same dopamine then causes our brain to remember how pleasurable the chocolate biscuit was, causing us to want to eat it again.”

It’s why, according to Rebecca, when we feel stressed or sad, we seek foods that will give us the most pleasure. So yes, your mum’s home-cooked Victoria Sponge or a salad that reminds you of your happiest holiday really can cheer you up. 

The link between food and mood

What nutrients boost mood?

Given that the monotony of everyday life continues, you might be looking for a pick-me-up that lasts longer than just one meal. That’s where ensuring we have enough of certain nutrients can make a difference, according to Rebecca. 

Magnesium’s main function in the body is energy regulation and muscle and nerve function. However, there is some evidence to suggest it plays a role in regulating stress too. Low levels have also been associated with anxiety, while those who have been found to supplement with magnesium have shown mood stabilising effects,” she says. 

Interestingly, a 2000 study found that students undergoing stressful exam conditions had increased amounts of magnesium in their urine, suggesting that magnesium plays a role in the body’s stress response and we run on lower levels than required. “Scientists agree more research is needed, but as dietary intake of magnesium has been shown to be insufficient in Western populations, you could consider your sources of magnesium.”

The UK’s recommended daily allowance of magnesium for women is 270mg. Adding in an extra 50g serving of spinach can give you 40mg of the nutrient, while one avocado provides 58g. But when in doubt, a good daily supplement, in the form of a vitamin or nutrition drink such as Huel, can help to contribute to your levels, too.

“Serotonin is another hormone and neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood and is linked to feelings of happiness. It’s possible for some of us to have lower levels of serotonin, due to aspects such as our genetic makeup or adverse life events, but balanced nutrition can be beneficial in increasing serotonin levels and stabilising moods,” says Rebecca. For example, foods rich in omega-3 fats and soluble fibre have been shown to increase serotonin levels.

“This is partly linked to the gut microbiome, so looking after this with soluble prebiotic fibres and probiotics could have a bigger impact on your happiness than you may think.”

To take care of our gut health and serotonin levels, Rebecca suggests trying a mix of omega-3 rich and high fibre chia seeds and oat porridge for breakfast, or salmon, lentils and green beans for dinner.

“It’s important to remember that our bodies and minds are like machines and they simply can’t function at their best if they don’t receive the right fuel,” says Rebecca.  

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