How to Keep Calm and Cheer Up
If the recent political and economic turmoil, disappointment over the football or simply the endless series of chilly, wet days have been getting you down, it could be time to take a nutritional approach to managing your mood. Activating the body’s natural cheering and calming systems is likely to make you feel a whole lot better than bingeing on your default comfort food. Here’s how you can plan your meals to help boost your mood and reduce any residual anxiety.
A sugary breakfast is no way to keep your mood on an even keel – pancakes, muffins or high-sugar cereal will send blood sugar levels soaring, releasing insulin and setting you up for a blood sugar crash. Typical symptoms of low blood sugar include anxiety and nervousness. A good balance of protein and fibre is the best way to boost your mood in the morning – smoked salmon, scrambled eggs and wholemeal toast is a winning blood sugar balancing combination. Eating oily fish helps to keep your omega 3 nicely topped up, which is a major bonus, as low blood levels of omega 3 have been associated with an increased risk of low mood and depression. If a cooked breakfast isn’t for you, try adding a large spoon of sunflower seeds to muesli or yogurt, as they’re full of magnesium which helps to calm the nervous system.
If you’re tempted to grab a bar of chocolate for a quick mood boost, steer clear of sugary milk chocolate and pick up some dark chocolate with hazelnut instead. Compounds called methylxanthines which are found in the high levels of cacao in dark chocolate help to create a sense of wellbeing by activating arousal receptors in the brain. Chocolate also contains the amino acid tryptophan which supports the production of serotonin, the ‘good mood’ neurotransmitter, keeping you upbeat and cheerful. Hazelnuts are a great source of vitamin B6 and magnesium. Confusion and depression are common symptoms of a deficiency in vitamin B6, and low levels of magnesium can lead to anxiety and palpitations.
If you usually have a sandwich for lunch, then look out for fillings that are rich in tryptophan, such as chicken or turkey breast, as these are then converted into serotonin, which is vital in promoting cheerfulness and a sense of serenity. Consistently low levels of serotonin are associated with anxiety, depression and panic attacks. Wholemeal bread will help to balance both your blood sugar and your mood, as it contains higher levels of fibre, magnesium and tryptophan than refined white bread. If you prefer to tuck into a salad, then opt for something with plenty of leafy green vegetables, such as spinach or watercress. These are packed full of vitamin C, B vitamins and magnesium which work in synergy to support the adrenal glands which regulate the stress response in the body.
Lentil soup is an option that could cheer you up: as well as being rich in calming magnesium, lentils are a great source of the amino acid tyrosine. The brain uses tyrosine to produce the neurotransmitter dopamine which stimulates reward and pleasure receptors and creates a sense of gratification. Low levels of dopamine are commonly associated with a loss of motivation, a sense of apathy and poor concentration. You could also try a jacket sweet potato instead of rice or pasta to accompany your meal – sweet potato is especially high in potassium, which is good news if recent events have sent your blood pressure soaring, as optimal potassium levels are critical for cardiovascular function and maintaining a healthy blood pressure as well as helping to calm the nervous system.
For more advice on smart food choices, take a look at my new book, The Right Bite, Nourish Books, £6.99.