When you chose to follow a Paleo Diet you most likely first hoped it would impact your physical health and appearance. There is, however, another factor you may want to consider whilst embracing your Paleo lifestyle: the impact on your mental health.
A growing body of research is discovering that food does not only affect your waistline but also impacts your moods, emotions, and even longer-term conditions like depression. This should make sense when you consider brain is a physical entity, running on the energy that you put into your body, affected by shifts in our hormones, blood sugar levels, and many other biological processes.
When it comes to your mood, you may think that your feelings are all in your head and you have most probably always been led to believe that your brain is primarily responsible for your emotions and how you feel.
In reality, your gut and your brain are more closely connected than you may think. This link is called the gut-brain axis, and science has shown that the microbiome synthesizes key neurotransmitters like serotonin, that regulate your mood. If your microbiome is imbalanced, having either too few microbes or an overgrowth of less beneficial bacteria, your mood can be directly affected as the gut will fail to produce adequate appropriate producing enough neurotransmitters.
The lining of your digestive tract is filled with enteroendocrine cells, which send information to your brain based specifically on the nutrients you are able to consume. The vagus nerve then transmits this information to your brain, directly impacting how you feel and what you do. This information can be either elicit a positive or negative response. (
An easy example is the momentary rush of pleasure or instant gratification you may experience when choosing a high sugar treat. This is a direct result of sugar prompting the release of dopamine, your ‘reward’ neurotransmitter.
Unfortunately, this can become a vicious downward spiral as the reward is momentary and you have to continue eating this type of food in order to trigger another dopamine release. Eventually, this reduces the metabolism of serotonin in your gut. Serotonin is another neurotransmitter essential for regulating and maintaining a good mood. It is made predominantly in the gut and having less of it may lead to more frequent experiences of a low mood.
If you’re trying to keep your mood balanced and positive, consistently reaching for a sugary or sweet treat may not be best way to do it.
When following a Paleo Diet, you are cutting out much of the processed sugar and including many of the nutrient-rich foods that boost and regulate your mood.
Mood Boosting Foods
A Paleo Diet is one of the strategies for maintaining gut health. However, just because something is Paleo doesn't mean it balances moods.
There are 5 specific vitamins and nutrients that are great for your brain. These are often found in high amounts in many whole foods, and a well-formulated Paleo Diet can include many of these mood ‘superfoods. These nutrients can improve your serotonin production and even provide amino acids that help regulate mood.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids
According to a recent study, omega 3 fatty acids are not only good for your heart, but also your mental health. The scientists revealed that low levels of omega 3 are tied to depression and impulsivity. In addition to lowering your cholesterol levels, eating omega 3 rich foods may also improve your mood. Omega 3-rich foods include:
- Wild Caught Salmon
- Grass-fed beef and lamb
- Chia Seeds, Flax Seeds, and Hemp Seeds
- Egg Yolks
- Mackerel, Sardines, Herrings and Anchovies
Vitamin B1 (Thiamine)
A lack of Vitamin B1 (or thiamine), has been linked to a poorer mood. Those with a Vitamin B1 deficiency often feel fatigued and less confident. It is important to note that, this condition is very rare and easily avoided, as thiamine occurs in many Paleo friendly, whole, nutrient dense foods including:
- Potatoes (yes, you can have potatoes on a Paleo Diet)
It is well understood that pregnant women and those trying to conceive should take folic acid supplements. What most people are unaware of is that a lack of folic acid can have a negative impact on your mood. Those struggling with eating disorders or taking medications which inhibit folic acid absorption are at risk. Foods rich in folic acid include:
- Citrus Fruits
Your body needs iron to produce hemoglobin, a chemical that is responsible for transporting oxygen throughout the entire body. An iron deficiency does not only result in a lack of oxygen in your blood and inner organs but can leave you feeling depressed and lethargic (or sluggish). Eating these foods to supply your body with all the iron it may need:
- Meat, Poultry and Pork (Grass-Fed & Pastured)
Your body is made up of anywhere between 60-70% water. When researching the effects of dehydration on the human body, scientists discovered that in addition to experiencing headaches and feeling fatigued, those who were dehydrated exhibited and felt changes in their mood. It appears that women in particular suffer emotional side effects when dehydrated, have increased feelings of anxiety and are challenged to concentrate. You should not wait until you feel the physical impact of dehydration that is thirst, drink pure, filtered water regularly.
Of special note:
A powerful gut-healing food, bone broth contains collagen, glutamine, and glycine, which repair the digestive tract and therefore increase nutrient absorption.
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Foods To Avoid
As discussed, a balanced mood requires a balance in the levels of neurotransmitters and hormones that have a strong influence on your mental state, and maintain a positive chemical balance. These nutrients found in whole foods like naturally occurring fats, proteins, vegetables, nuts and seeds, make them positive foods for your brain. By default, your Paleo Diet is very supportive of your brain and your mood but it is still relevant to emphasize a few foods to avoid in order to maintain your positive disposition
Sugar and Refined Foods - Refined foods decrease your body’s ability to maintain balanced blood sugar levels, and in result affects your energy levels and mood. Refined sugar also decreases your body’s ability to handle pain. If you are eating a lot of sweets, you will likely feel that headache or back pain quicker and more intensely. This can, in some instances apply to certain Paleo approved sweeteners and baked goods which, although technically ‘Paleo’, are definitely far removed from their whole-food form.
Caffeine - You may use caffeine to wake you up or give you a boost, but when you constantly hit up your favorite coffee shop, you are decreasing your body’s production of serotonin (the neurotransmitter that affects mood, sexual desire and function, appetite, sleep, memory and learning, and some social behavior).
Dairy - Dairy is one of the top 5 food allergens. An allergy to a certain food like the dairy found in milk, cheese and butter can cause symptoms such as anxiety, attention deficit disorders, fatigue, gas, headaches, irritability, and joint pain.
Additives and Preservatives - Artificial colors and flavors such as yellow and red dyes, and MSG, along with other additives and preservatives are also called ‘excitotoxins’ because they excite your brain’s neurons to be overly active, and can even cause them to die. Consuming these additives over years has been linked to neurodegenerative diseases and mood disorders. These artificial flavors and preservatives have even been banned in some countries!
Food & Your Mood
It can be difficult to connect your diet to your mood. What if you ate something two days ago that is causing your depression, stomach pain or headache today? It can take up to four days for a specific food to affect you or clear the body.
To better understand your eating patterns and how they affect your body and mood, keep a food-mood diary. Write down what you eat and when. Write down how you feel as well. Not only will you start to see patterns of your food habits, you will start to see if something is negatively affecting your health.