My mother was a nurse who raised us to believe that diet was the most effective way to impact your overall health and well-being. I didn’t think much of it until I had kids myself; how plain it was to me then. Watching my daughter go through her younger years, falling over, crying, and melt in down only minutes after she ate a load of sugar, confirmed that certain foods have an almost immediate effect on the way your brain and nervous system reacts and how you feel.
As a devout vegetarian for 25 years I remember thinking that eating meat made one more aggressive. In recent times, gluten has been accused of exacerbating autistic behavior in children, high fructose corn syrup of nullifying the ability to experience satiation, and white sugar of increasing the severity of attention deficit disorder (ADD). Alcohol seems to calm an anxious nervous system after one glass but is known to make an angry person become more irrational and sometimes violent, after many.
For centuries many herbs have been used to calm the nervous system and instill a feeling of euphoria like Kava Kava, Minty Motherwort, and St John’s Wort. Foods like warm milk and turkey are known to relax your body and make you feel you sleepy, while coffee and cigarettes are stimulants that rev you up and make you feel energized. Oysters and chocolate are thought to induce romance, while the salycilates found in many fruits and Aspirin make you angry and agitated.
Our stressed out American lifestyle includes dietary habits that start the day with coffee to get out of bed, after a night of little sleep; a donut on the way to work for instant energy; a convenient slice of pizza or a nitrate-laden cold cut sandwich for lunch; and a packaged artificial dinner to fill up with a glass of alcohol to calm down, right before bed. Stress, sleep deprivation, irregular and bad nutrition, and no exercise cannot possibly make for a calm mind, a strong body, or a joyful spirit.
Clearly when I eat a healthy, regular diet loaded with fresh fruits, vegetables, lean protein, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains my body reaps the benefits of the essential nutrition it needs to build and maintain healthy cells, balance neurotransmitters in my brain, and maintain blood glucose levels that prevent the crazy highs and crashing lows that come from eating sugar and junk. Balancing my brain serotonin levels and eating to keep my body calm and non-reactive ensures an even mood, a happy family, and an overall feeling of peace and well-being.
Foods to Support a Healthy Diet
Omega Fatty Acids
These are found in foods including nuts like almonds and walnuts, fatty fish like salmon and tuna, seeds like chia and flax, and eggs. These foods provide mood-enhancing neurotransmitters to keep you feeling alert and happy. For the max, try rubbing a piece of salmon with some fresh olive oil and pressing it into a mixture of black and white sesame seeds, before grilling or broiling.
This is found in foods like oatmeal, beans, fruits, and grains that will keep your digestive system healthy while enhancing that warm feeling of satiation so that you aren’t tempted to fill up on empty calories. Add some raisins and ground flax seeds to your oatmeal in the morning for some extra fiber.
Tea with Antioxidants
While I avoid coffee to prevent the shakiness that comes with too much caffeine, I love to drink tea, which I find affects my body much differently and gives me a lift while adding antioxidants to prevent the negative effects of aging and attrition.
Getting your Ds
Recent research suggests that sun exposure is key to living a happy, long, and healthy life. If you are like me and live in a place where the winters are long, you see many friends begin to suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). In Boston, exposure to sunlight during the months of November through February does not produce any significant amounts of vitamin D in the skin. Vitamin D helps to increase the levels of serotonin, one of the key neurotransmitters influencing our mood.
Getting 15 minutes of unprotected sun exposure every day, or eating foods rich in vitamin D like canned salmon, mackerel, and tuna are great methods of getting more D. You can also drink a daily glass of organic milk or fortified soy milk. (See page 46 for more information on vitamin D.)
Getting your Bs
These vitamins are essential for a healthy nervous system, especially Vitamin B12 and Folic acid, which aid in the production of the calming neurotransmitters that keep you feeling happy.
By eating one cup of lentils or beans, a cup of quinoa, or some spinach or broccoli you will ensure a healthy and happy dose of calming folate as well as the protein and fiber needed to feel satiated throughout the day.
Keep in mind that eating these foods alone is not enough to boost your mood. Add spiritual practice and some gentle, non-impact exercise together with these foods and you will feel more energized and an increased feeling of well-being that comes from a natural and deeper balance within your body.