The weather has just begun to turn. Fall winds are blowing. Pumpkins abound, and many of us are hunkering down more at home now that it’s cooler and the days shorter. As a child, I used to dread the shorter days and darker mornings, the annoyance of putting on socks and tennis shoes instead of slipping into my flip-flops. And while I’ve come to appreciate the changing of the leaves, the light and the beauty that fall brings, I still experience a brief grieving period when the sun slips lower into the sky, with the awareness that summer is over. Many of us also notice at least a slight, if not significant shift in our moods with the transition from summer to fall. Those suffering from depression, the blues or SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) feel it the most. Sweets abound this time of year, baking begins in earnest and the holidays always bring food front and center. No one questions the food-mood connection, but I’d like to give you a few extra reasons to focus on your dinner plate this fall and winter season.
There is mounting research and interest in the fact that our guts play a much larger role in our mood than once previously thought. Serotonin, or 5HTP, is the neurotransmitter targeted by prescription drugs that treat depression. When serotonin levels are low, we feel sad, and when they are higher, we feel happier. Many don’t know, however, that 80 to 90% of the body’s total serotonin can be found in the gut, not in the brain. Serotonin is even found in high concentrations in whole foods like walnuts, pineapples, bananas, kiwis and tomatoes (which contain a wealth of other nutrients for good physical health as well). Unfortunately, serotonin in the gut cannot pass through the blood-brain barrier without help from its amino acid friend tryptophan. Commonly associated with the Thanksgiving hangover after indulging in too much turkey, this essential amino acid is the building block needed to funnel serotonin in the belly to the brain, where it needs to remain in high levels for you to stay happy. Foods high in tryptophan tend to be filling, rich and creamy comfort foods like meats, eggs, yogurt, nuts and beans. Hmmm . . . is it any wonder that bright and delicious produce combined with satisfying (whole and unprocessed) comfort foods, might be responsible for a good mood?
Julia Ross, MA, author of The Mood Cure and The Diet Cure, bases her treatment of mood disorders on a prescription of exactly these types of satisfying whole foods in combination with amino acid supplements. Through her many years of successful treatment of individuals with mood, substance and eating disorders, she has debunked many myths about saturated or what she refers to as “satisfying” fats, including butter, olive oil and omega 3 rich foods. She also highlights the importance for a high tryptophan diet (read, plenty of protein) in order to get the good mood serotonin flowing.
Now, this time of year, sugar also flows like rivers and is hard to avoid. If your serotonin levels are dipping, it is perfectly natural and part of our genetic makeup to crave sugar and carbohydrates. Sugar, especially when combined with chocolate, white flour or dairy, has drug like effects on your brain’s pleasure sites and acts not only to boost serotonin levels, but can cause endorphin levels to soar. A highly addictive combination. Ross, in fact, designates sweets and white flour starches (often found hand in hand) as the top two “bad mood” foods. While they work temporarily, they ultimately alter brain chemistry and demand more chocolate, more ice cream, and more cookies to keep up a brief mood boost. Ross’s general guidelines for good mood foods are plenty of protein, bright colorful veggies, satisfying fats (as in butter and olive oil), and to eat enough food, regularly, and according to your genes.
Michael Pollan has echoed the sentiment of eating according to your genes, or at least picking a traditional diet and sticking with it. A modern Western diet is the ultimate prescription for a bad mood, not to mention diabetes, heart disease and cancer. So, it can’t hurt to stick to an indigenous diet if you want to be happier. This is a point Dr. Daphne Miller of UC San Francisco Medical Center elaborates on in her book The Jungle Effect. Her struggle to help patients with depression led her to Iceland, where not only do Icelanders eat relatively the same diet they have for centuries, but studies have found they are one of the happiest cultures in the world. Despite the fact that Iceland is relatively isolated, with freezing cold temperatures and winters spent in nearly continual darkness, it has one of the lowest rates of depression in the world (and this is after controlling for genetic factors). Icelanders may not be eating turkey and green beans, but they do eat incredibly large amounts of fish, almost exclusively pasture raised meats and organic dairy, all of which constitute a diet rich in Omega 3 fatty acids. Omega 3’s are popular for their ability to boost serotonin levels in the brain. And although fresh produce is sparse in Iceland, residents consume antioxidant rich bilberries (similar to blueberries) and waxy potatoes that help to stabilize blood sugar and boost brain chemistry. Dr. Miller, like Julia Ross, prescribes these foods to her patients reporting depression symptoms.
Without an enduring indigenous diet in America, our Thanksgiving table may provide some clues about how to reclaim the nutrients for a good mood that our gut and brains are craving. Americans have struggled to find a food culture outside of fast food chains, but Thanksgiving is a truly special and unique American holiday. On Thanksgiving, we actually take hours, sometimes days, to cook sides of vegetables and roast a turkey – a far cry from the 27 minutes that the average American spends daily to cook ALL of their meals (David M. Cutler, et al., “Why Have Americans Become More Obese?,”, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 17, No. 3). Families sit down to talk and play games as the cooking is done, and sit together for an extended meal, something most busy families rarely do during the week anymore. And after all of that conversation and connection, we sit down to a meal rich in tryptophan, fresh veggies, antioxidants, satisfying fats and, of course, the endorphin boosting pumpkin pie to finish things all off. We share not only our time, but also our gratitude, as we savor the flavor. This is the ultimate good mood prescription, and one we can apply in all sorts of ways to our daily lives, not just around the holidays. Bon Appetit!
If you are interested in exploring the serotonin and millions of other microbes in your gut, the American Gut Project is exploring the gut-to-brain connection even further, and is enrolling subjects now.
If you are interested in experimenting with some good mood food in your kitchen, visit http://www.eatwild.com/.
About this Contributor: Laney Cline King, LCSW, received her Bachelor of Science in Psychology at the University of California, San Diego and her Masters in Social Work from Columbia University, New York. She is an LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker) with over 10 years of experience helping children and families in a variety of nonprofit settings. As a certified LEAN nutrition coach, she currently provides workshops to families wanting to lead healthier lifestyles. At this time, Laney is most involved with the toughest job of her career, raising her three children in the San Francisco Bay Area.