Food and Mood

Draw the curtains. Turn down the lights. Come a little closer. We’re going to talk about something nutritionists never seem to write about: Food can make you feel good. And I don’t mean the simple warm good feelings that follow a fine meal. I mean the pick-me-up-when-I’m-low, calm-me-down-when- I’m-hyper kind of good you usually associate with serious mood-altering drugs.

Why do most nutritionist ignore this subject? Frankly, I haven’t a clue. But the nice thing about writing this is that it gives me the opportunity to pass along a bunch of information that you may otherwise never see.

So here’s an article on feel and food. The article names some of the common, naturally occurring, mood-alerting chemicals in food; explains how these chemicals work; and presents some simple strategies for increasing their effectiveness. Sit back, open a box of chocolates, pour a glass of wine, brew up the espresso — and enjoy.

A mood is a feeling, an internal emotional state that can affect how you see the world. For example, if your team wins the World Series, your happiness may last for days, making you feel so mellow that you simply shrug off minor annoyances such as finding a ticket on your windshield because your parking meter expired while you were having lunch.

On the other hand, if you feel sad because the project you spent six months setting up didn’t work out, your disappointment can linger long enough to make your work seem temporarily unrewarding or your favorite television show unfunny.

Most of the time, after shifting one way or the other, your mood swings back to center fairly soon. You come down from your high or recover from your disappointment, and life resumes its normal pace — some good stuff here, some bad news there, but all in all, a relatively level field.

Occasionally, however, your mood may go haywire. Your happiness over your team’s victory escalates to the point where you find yourself rushing from store to store buying things you can’t afford, or your sadness over your failure at work deepens into a gloom that steals joy from everything else.

This unpleasant state of affairs — a mood out of control — is called a mood disorder. About one in every four human beings (women more often than men) experiences some form of mood disturbance during his or her lifetime.

Eight or nine out of every 100 people experience a clinical mood disorder, a mood disorder serious enough to be diagnosed as a disease. The two most common moods are happiness and sadness.

The two most common mood disorders are clinical depression, an elongated period of overly intense sadness, and clinical mania, an elongated period of overly intense elation. Clinical depression alone is called a unipolar (one-part) disorder; clinical depression plus clinical mania is a bipolar (two-part) disorder.

Today, scientists have identified naturally occurring brain chemicals that affect mood and play a role in mood disorders. Your body makes a group of substances called neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that enable brain cells to send messages back and forth. Three important neurotransmitters are:

  • Dopamine (DOE-pa-meen)
  • Norepinephrine (NOR-e-pe-NEF-rin)
  • Serotonin (ser-a-TOE-nin)

Dopamine and norepinephrine are chemicals that make you feel alert and energized. Serotonin is a chemical that can make you feel smooth and mellow. Some forms of clinical depression and mania appear to be malfunctions of the body’s ability to handle these chemicals.

Drugs known as antidepressants adjust mood by making neurotransmitters more available to your brain or enabling your brain to use them more efficiently. Medications used to treat mood disorders include:

  • Tricyclic antidepressants: These drugs are named for their chemical structure: three ring–shaped groups of atoms (tri = three; cyclic = ring). They relieve symptoms by increasing the availability of serotonin. One well-known tricyclic is amitriptyline (Elavil).
  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs): These medicines slow your body’s reabsorption of serotonin so that more of that chemical is available to your brain. SSRIs are reported to have fewer side effects than the tricyclics. Two well-known SSRIs are fluoxetine (Prozac) and paroxetine (Paxil).
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAO inhibitors): These drugs slow your body’s natural destruction of dopamine and other neurotransmitters so that they remain available for your brain. Phenelzine (Nardil) and tranylcypromine (Parnate) are MAO inhibitors. Lithium: This drug’s precise actions remain unknown, but it may increase the availability of serotonin and lower the availability of norepinephrine.
  • A number of chemicals unrelated to each other or to other groups of antidepressants: Some are known to regulate the availability of serotonin; others work in ways that have not yet been identified. This group includes bupropion (Wellbutrin, Zyban) and sertraline (Zoloft).