Eating can be a more emotional exercise than many realize.
Thursday, January 18, 2007
Charles Manson, one of the most damaged human beings in recent history, made a lot of bad decisions. Among them, we now know, was what he chose to eat for breakfast. According to a highly regarded study, Manson’s violent, antisocial behavior might have been avoided if only he had put some chopped walnuts in his granola.
Dr. William Walsh of the Pfeiffer Treatment Center in Naperville, Ill., analyzed the hairs of 27 murderers, including Manson, in the 1980s. Walsh found a consistent chemical pattern—severe zinc deficiency. Inadequate levels of the trace mineral found in walnuts, as well as some meats, other nuts, and beans, are known to be linked to aggression, emotional instability, and poor stress response. Of course there were other factors—but Walsh concluded that a poor diet contributed to turning these people into monsters.
More recently, the young guests at an English maximum-security prison were fed vitamins and other food supplements with their pudding. Oxford University’s Bernard Gesch found that prisoners who received doses of zinc, iodine, potassium, and magnesium committed 37 percent fewer violent offenses than a control group.
Similar results have shown up in schools that are replacing soda and junk food with salad bars and whole grains. Teachers and administrators are finding that students who eat well get better grades and have fewer behavioral problems.
Biochemists and nutritionists are not terribly surprised by these results. It is an accepted scientific fact that food affects our brain chemistry. The relationship between what we eat and how we feel involves cranial chemicals called neurotransmitters, which jump from cell to cell relaying messages. More and more research is showing that a balanced diet allows these neurotransmitters to function the way they are supposed to. A healthier diet can mean a healthier state of mind.
The superstar element in mood regulation is the transmitter serotonin, sometimes called the “happy molecule.” When the serotonin is flowing, good moods are more likely. Some foods encourage the pituitary glad to pump the happy mollecule; other foods can clog things up.
Just ask nutrition and holistic health counselor Heather Esposito, one-time Monterey resident and student at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York City. Esposito says she entered her field after discovering that her own depression—which sometimes found her descending into thoughts of suicide—was directly connected to what she ate.
“Serotonin eases tension, plays a role in mood, sleep, and appetite,” she says. “Low levels can lead to depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders.”
While Western science and medicine have only recently begun to pay close attention to the way food affects our emotions, diet has long played a key role in Eastern traditions.
Jeff Turner, a health practitioner in Monterey, follows the precepts of Ayrvedic medicine, an ancient Indian practice. In addition to common physical ailments, Turner says, he regularly treats people who complain that they can’t focus, or can’t sleep, or have trouble dealing with anger. He has also dealt with patients who come to him because they are depressed or lethargic.
He says his reponse is influenced by Eastern practices regarding prevention, and that he often recognizes the same primary source for their struggles.
“It is really all connected to food,” he says. “People eat three times per day. From my perspective, people medicate three times per day.”
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Modern science supports the idea of food as a mood-altering medicine. The best mood-boosters found in foods fall into five categories: B-vitamins, the amino acid tryptophan, omega 3 fatty acids, trace minerals, and complex carbohydrates.
Foods that are loaded with B-vitamins can help battle sadness. Bumming out? Bring on the dark leafy greens—the spinach, chard, and collards as well as citrus fruits and an array of beans.
“B-vitamins are found to be deficient in people with depression,” says Esposito. “They are necessary for the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system.”
A person running low on Vitamin B might feel tired and irritable. Throw in some folic acid, or B9, and the production of serotonin is aided. Promising studies show the benefits of treating depression with folic acid.
Another stellar B, niacin, or B3, has been shown to relieve anxiety. It does this by producing counter-stress hormones. (Studies show that B3 deficiency is one cause of dementia.)
Other foods actually invite a relaxed mood.
“Eating turkey and milk can help you relax,” says Michelle Barth, a registered dietician who works at Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. They do so by supplying tryptophan, which helps the body process feel-good serotonin and niacin. Fortunately, tryptophan sources are numerous: It is found in seafood, beans, eggs and yogurt. Complex carbohydrates like whole wheat pasta also help, which may explain why Italians are so happy.
Now cue the hero soundtrack: The good-moodiest nutrients are the supreme omega 3s, which have increasingly claimed glory in the medical world and the media, for good reason.
Omega 3s are the undisputed champions of the “brain foods.” They enhance cell membranes in the brain, contribute to a healthy nervous system, and lubricate the nerve connections that allow mood-regulating neurotransmitters to carry clearer messages.
“For increased alertness consume foods containing essential fatty acids,” says Esposito. “These are also high in tryptophan and protein.” She and others in the field suggest loading up on fish, especially wild salmon, herring, anchovies, sardines, and halibut. Avocados and almonds are also good sources of tryptophan; walnuts and seeds are extra-good.
Some doctors go so far as to attribute America’s mental illness epidemic to a terrible omega imbalance.
Most people consume 10 to 20 times more omega 6 fatty acids (found in processed oils and red meat) than omega 3s, while the optimal ratio is between 1:1 and 4:1. Just three grams of omega 3s—about eight ounces of wild-caught salmon—can be clinically effective for mood disorders. And with a little burre blanc, darn tasty.
PCB and dioxin cause the FDA to warn pregnant women and young children to eat no more than 12 ounces, or about two servings, of seafood per week. Thankfully, a handful of walnuts and flaxseeds can save the day, especially for vegetarians.
Other nuts and seeds can also stabilize moods—Brazil nuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds, and sunflower carry magnesium, which is also crucial to the production of neurotransmitters. Magnesium helps relax the body and mind, and relieves premenstrual mood changes.
It is particularly difficult to get enough magnesium in a diet of processed foods, so deficiencies are common—unleashing fatigue, irritability, and mood swings.
Another loveable mood nutrient suffered a serious blow during the Atkins craze—carbohydrates. The brain particularly craves the carb glucose for mental clarity and energy needs. It also has a hankering for the whole grains: wheat, oats, millet, quinoa, and brown rice, and also fruits, vegetables, and beans that stabilize energy levels and combat fatigue.
“People will use concentrated carbs [like sweets] to deal with mood because they’re a quick fix,” Barth says, “But they get you on a roller coaster because they don’t stay in system long. You have a crash and then will need more sugar to pick you up. Carbs are the thing to use for mood, but you need more complex carbs.”
Barth compares the cycle to other famous spike-and-crash items. “Try not to use caffeine or sugar to improve your mood,” she says, “because ultimately it’s not going to help and will give you a downward swing.”
Esposito has a simple recommendation to letting food set the right mood. “Go to the grocery store and look for all the foods that don’t have labels,” she says. “These are the foods that nature has provided us that help our bodies—our mind, digestion and emotions—function properly.” Her personal success story, switching to whole food sources, or foods closest to their natural origin, provides no small amount of inspiration.
“I went from having chronic low-grade depression and occasional suicidal ideation,” she says, “to solely happy, stable moods—all from changing the foods I was consuming.”