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On Nutrition

Feel-Good Foods Can Lift Moods

November 19, 2001|AMANDA URSELL

We know by how we feel that coffee gives us a boost and alcohol loosens our inhibitions. But now we're beginning to understand how other, less obvious components of our diet can alter brain chemistry to change, and often improve, the way we feel.

The most documented example comes from looking at a part of the brain called the anterior hypothalamus. It has a special nerve network that generates a sense of well-being and encourages us to repeat behavior that has previously caused its stimulation. Over time, this has helped human survival. Sweet foods, for example, tended historically to be safe. Because the anterior hypothalamus makes us seek more sweet foods, our safety was more secure.

Substituting naturally sweet foods such as ripe fruit for candy, cakes and biscuits can create that sense of well-being yet not lead to subsequent blood-sugar dips that make you feel lousy.

Researchers have also investigated the ability of certain food combinations to raise the brain's levels of serotonin, known as the "happy hormone." Many antidepressant drugs work by increasing serotonin, but raising it naturally--through a protein-rich diet--also appears to be possible.

As Dr. Hyla Cass, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, explains: "Tryptophan is an amino acid, a building block of protein from which serotonin is made. Turkey is rich in tryptophan, so eating foods like turkey can improve your mood." Having some form of carbohydrate in the same meal, such as bread, helps the brain to use tryptophan.

Milk also supplies plenty of tryptophan and, since warm foods release endorphins (other feel-good chemicals in the brain), warm milk acts as a mood-enhancing drink.

A plentiful supply of minerals and vitamins is also important. A number of studies have shown an association between low intakes of selenium and a greater incidence of depression.

Brazil nuts are by far the richest source of selenium, with shellfish such as crab, fresh tuna, sunflower seeds and whole-grain bread being other important sources.

A lack of iron, which is found in red meat, oily fish, sesame seeds, dried apricots and fortified breakfast cereals, has also been linked to low moods.

Obviously, mood depends on many factors, but it is becoming increasingly clear that though a less than optimal diet can make you feel worse, a diet that is right for you could make things considerably brighter.

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Amanda Ursell, a nutritionist, is a London-based journalist. Her column appears twice a month. E-mail: amanda@ursell.com.

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