The Mood-Food Connection
by Dr.Eva Bell
Mood swings are not external events. They are due to what happens inside our bodies. Many of us don’t realise that the food we eat affects our moods. Our brain is very intimately influenced by what we eat. We mistakenly believe that the heart is the seat of emotions. This is not true. The word ‘heart’ in Greek means ‘intestines.’ The gut is the responder and communicator of our feelings. When we are angry or frightened, we feel a terrible sensation in the pit of our stomach. We use expressions like “butterflies in the stomach” when scared. When disgusted it “makes us want to throw up.” “Gut reaction” is an instinctive reaction to a particular situation. Stress causes nervous diarrohoea or peptic ulcers. So there is a connection between our emotions and our intestines, and what we eat does affect our behaviour.
There is a ‘feel good’ chemical in the brain called serotonin. It ensures alertness and calmness. The starch or carbohydrate content in our food is responsible for maintaining normal serotonin levels. When there is a long interval between meals, serotonin levels fall and this makes us irritable and cranky. As the saying goes, “A hungry man is an angry man.” Fall in serotonin levels brings on hunger. When carbohydrates or sweets are eaten, one feels good again.
However, certain kinds of food like sweets, chocolates and ice cream cause quick rises in blood sugar. The pancreas is activated to secrete Insulin, which in turn brings down the blood sugar, and the cycle is repeated. This is what we see in the youngsters of today. They have no time for regular meals. So they snack on fast food and coca cola and feel good. It actually gives them a ‘high.’ Snacking becomes a habit, and mood swings follow. When one feels low reaching for the coca cola bottle or rushing to Café Day becomes habitual.
Our Indian diet has usually three solid meals per day. This is good because a normal quantity of food will last for four or five hours. There are two important points to remember. One is never to forgo a meal, but eat smaller quantities if one wants to diet. Breakfast should be the largest meal as the interval between the night meal and breakfast is long, and the brain needs its glucose to begin the day’s activities.
Lunch can be smaller, and the night meal the lightest. The last meal should be at least three hours before bedtime. Sleeping soon after a meal is bad, as food cannot be metabolised, and is deposited as fat. A heavy stomach also causes insomnia and heartburn.
The second important thing is never to skip breakfast. Overnight, the body stores of glucose are depleted. If not replenished, one can get into a bad mood and stay cranky. When sugar levels drop so do energy levels. This creates a tendency to nibble at food right through the morning.
Food cravings are different from hunger. The ‘feeding frenzy’ is like a drug addiction. Just because we crave for food doesn’t mean that we need it. As described earlier, it leads to a vicious cycle of mood swings and guzzling. Children can get very irritable when they come back from school. But when they’ve eaten some biscuits or drunk some beverage they bounce back to normal, and rush off to play.
Similarly a wise woman will not bother her spouse with her worries, the moment he steps in the door after a hard day’s work. But after a cup of tea and something to eat, his mood will change and he will be more attentive to his wife’s problems.
Stress is another reason why people eat all the time. The act of digesting the food switches off that part of the brain which makes them tense. Having a hot chocolate or a biscuit when stressed out is the best form of self medication.
Emotions of sadness or loneliness also prompt people to eat too much. One woman who was forever eating said, “I miss my husband, and my stomach doesn’t know the difference between hunger and love.”
According to Chinese Philosophy, Yin and Yang are two qualities that complement and balance each other. Yin represents flexible, fluid and the cooler side of nature. Yang is the strong, dynamic hotter side. Macrobiotics is the combination of Yin and Yang foods in such a way as to be suitable for individual temperament. People who are more Yin than Yang are calm, relaxed, peaceful, creative and social. So, one can balance one’s food accordingly to suit one’s personality.
The best way to avoid mood swings is moderation in food and feeding habits. Eating is a fine art. A person who eats the right amount of food and does it will obvious pleasure is usually someone with a pleasant personality.