Food is medicine—or poison. There’s also plenty of gray areas, which can make choosing a healthy but satisfying diet difficult and confusing. As America is in the midst of an addiction epidemic to everything from painkillers and anti-depressants to processed foods and added sugars, it’s more important than ever to pay attention to how we nourish ourselves. Although most people know that items like added sugar can exacerbate diabetes (which is then linked to a number of diseases), food also impacts some seemingly smaller factors. For instance, food plays a big role in our mood. It turns out, nutrition therapy can help recovering addicts, but can also help with a number of mood and brain disorders, too.
There are also a lot of myths still floating around, like the idea that sugar makes people hyperactive. Sugar does release dopamine in the brain, which is the body’s reward system, but it’s been proven that sugar doesn’t cause hyperactivity. However, it’s tough to argue that people don’t perk up at the idea of a sweet treat. That may be where the confusion between looking forward to dessert and hyperactivity takes place. After all, kids can especially get pretty excited about dessert, but the sugar itself isn’t causing hyperactivity.
On the other hand, excitement is linked to a happier mood. A better idea can help a person be in a better disposition, provide more energy, and help with focus and concentration. Some doctors have been prescribing more conservative methods, and in some cases, a better diet may be an alternative to pills for some conditions. (Never stop a medication without speaking with your doctor first).
In less serious circumstances, food can be used as a medicine on a person-to-person basis. Everyone knows what it feels like to be hangry. This often happens not because you’re “starving,” but because blood sugar has dropped. It makes a person feel tired and irritable. That’s part of the reason eating small meals throughout the day is often recommended. Such a diet ensures a slow release of energy to keep blood sugar levels steady throughout the day. What are slow-release foods? They include whole grains, oats, nuts, and seeds.
Eating a wholesome breakfast starts your day off right and gets blood sugars at proper levels. In Ayurveda, it’s recommended that lunch is the heaviest meal of the day (though still not “heavy” by today’s western standards). Foods that can cause a rapid rise or crash of blood sugars should be avoided or consumed in small moderation, including sugar and alcohol.
Hydration is another important component of a healthy diet for mood. Many Americans are chronically dehydrated, which can make it difficult to think clearly. Constipation is another side effect of dehydration. The idea of drinking eight glasses of water a day is just an average, and many foods are mostly water (such as some fruits). Swap out soda and juice for water and check the color or your urine throughout the day for signs of dehydration (urine should be clear).
Your “gut health” is another key indicator. Healthy digestion requires fiber as well as hydration and regular exercise. Gut-healthy foods include vegetables, beans, yogurt, fruits, and pulses. Caffeine is a stimulant, providing short bursts of energy, but can quickly segue to depression and insomnia. Caffeine is also highly addictive, and decreasing consumption is one of the best things you can do for mood regulation.
What positive changes can you make to your diet for a better mood? How can you nourish your mind with what you’re feeding your body? Remember that your entire body is a machine, and your brain is at the helm. It needs your help, and the right nutrition, for optimal functioning.