Whether your goal is to feel happier, improve your mental focus or alleviate stress and feel calmer, there are foods that can tick all of these boxes. You really are what you eat! Words: Christine Bailey.

The turmoil caused by the pandemic has affected everyone in different ways. Uncertainty, fear, anxiety caused by ongoing stress can place its toll on our bodies, health and mood. Studies suggest that rates of depression and anxiety have been progressively rising during the pandemic. Almost one in five adults were likely to be experiencing some form of depression during the coronavirus (COVID-19) – a doubling compared to before the pandemic.

The good news is that our diet and lifestyle can have a profound effect on our mood, motivation and resilience. Research is revealing how low mood, anxiety and depression are linked to a number of underlying factors including inflammation, blood sugar imbalances, oxidative stress, poor methylation, gut and hormone imbalances. These can all impact the balance of neurotransmitters (like GABA, dopamine and serotonin) that affect how we think and feel.

Key nutrients

By eating the right foods you provide your body with the key nutrients needed to produce these brain chemicals to give you a natural lift. Of particular importance are amino acids from protein-rich foods. Without sufficient protein in your diet, your mood is likely to suffer. Dopamine for example which creates pleasure and keeps us motivated is made from amino acids tyrosine and phenylalanine. Serotonin requires the amino acid tryptophan and GABA can be made from glutamine.

The production of neurotransmitters is also dependent on sufficient levels of certain vitamins and minerals including magnesium, copper, zinc, B vitamins and folate. There are other important nutrients to support healthy mood too. For example insufficient levels of vitamin D, phospholipids (a group of fats) and omega 3 fats can also impact on how we think and feel.

Chamomile tea

In the same way, certain food choices can have a negative effect on mood.  We have all experienced that sugar high followed by an energy crash after raiding the cookie jar. Sugar highs and lows are just one-way food can affect our mood. Skipping meals or not eating enough can also result in falling blood sugar levels which can make us feel hungry and irritable.

Whether you are looking to reduce stress, boost energy or mood here are some of the top foods you should be eating.

Deflate Stress & Calm

 Anxiety, nervousness and fear are often linked to lower levels of the neurotransmitter GABA and excess levels of stress hormones like cortisol. Try the following foods…

Dark Chocolate – There are over 300 naturally-occurring chemicals in chocolate, and some of them like phenylethylamine can boost our mood. Dark chocolate and cocoa powder are rich in magnesium which helps relax our nervous system and calm the mind. Stress robs the body of magnesium, but the body must have magnesium to respond effectively to stress. Snack on a couple of squares of dark chocolate, make your own chocolate energy balls or add cocoa powder to a protein shake.

Chamomile – Chamomile contains a natural compound called apigenin which has been found in studies to reduce anxiety. Ideal as a warming evening drink to help you unwind. Other calming herbal teas include valerian, lemon balm and passionflower.

Yoghurt – Fermented foods like yoghurt, kefir and sauerkraut contain a range of beneficial gut-loving bacteria.  The influence of our gut bacteria on mental health is gaining more attention in the research with studies showing they can help improve resilience and reduce anxiety. Try a bowl of Greek yoghurt with berries for a sweet treat.

Beans – Butterbeans, kidney beans, haricot and others contain the nutrient inositol which has been shown to reduce worry and anxiety as well as improve mood. Beans also provide protein and fibre making them ideal for stabilising blood sugar levels and keeping energy levels high.  Try them tossed into salads or added to a warming soup or stew.

Butter beans

Energy Lift

Struggle to keep going through the day? Here are some healthy energy boosters…

Berries – Berries are loaded with antioxidants including anthocyanidins, known to boost brain function. Berries are also naturally sweet yet low in sugar and packed with fibre to help balance blood sugar and keep energy levels high. Delicious as a healthy snack or added to a post-workout shake.

Banana – Bananas are a popular choice for an energy boost particularly around workouts. They also contain the amino acid tryptophan as well as various nutrients like B6 which help convert tryptophan into the mood-boosting serotonin.

Coconut water – Dehydration can often lead to flagging energy levels. Coconut water is an excellent hydrating choice providing electrolytes like potassium and magnesium plus some carbohydrate to give you a natural boost. Use in smoothies or delicious on its own for a quick pick me up.

Oats – The combination of slow-releasing carbohydrates, protein plus key energy and mood-boosting nutrients (e.g B vitamins, iron, manganese, magnesium) mean oats are the perfect choice for improving energy levels. A bowl of warming porridge or homemade protein bars are simple ways to include more oats.

Focus and Motivation

Distractions are all around us especially if you are working from home – here are some choices to improve concentration

Green Tea – Green tea contains a combination of caffeine and the amino acid L-theanine, which helps increase certain neurotransmitters in the brain like GABA which helps improve focus and concentration. An ideal drink when you need to complete a deadline.

Eggs – The protein in eggs, particularly the yolks, can significantly boost your levels of tryptophan and tyrosine – the building blocks for serotonin and dopamine. Dopamine is a key brain chemical that helps improve motivation, productivity, and focus. Eggs also provide the nutrient choline which supports overall brain function and memory. Whether you like them scrambled, poached or made into an omelette they are the ultimate healthy fast food.

Poached eggs

Avocado – Known for their heart-healthy fats, avocados are rich in monounsaturated fats known to lower inflammation (inflammation can disrupt levels of mood-boosting neurotransmitters). Avocados also provide plenty of tyrosine, an amino acid that helps the body produce dopamine. Add them to salads, guacamole or spread over toast.

Almonds – Almonds and other nuts contain lots of tyrosine, which will get those dopamine levels up. They also contain a wealth of B vitamins and magnesium which are needed for the production of brain chemicals.  Perfect as a healthy snack.