Your mouth hovers over a morsel of food on your fork. As you place it in your mouth you can feel its texture and notice the crunchiness of the biscuit base along with the thick, sweet syrup and the soft chunks of fruit. You feel your tongue move it around while your molars gently grind it to a paste. The aroma rising from your plate blends with the taste. You know this food. You’ve eaten it many times before and it always brings back memories of your childhood visits to grandma’s place and her spicy apple pie.
Our senses of smell and taste are closely connected. Without the ability to smell, our food would taste extremely bland. Our tastebuds and the olfactory receptors in the roof of the nasal cavity send information to our brain via electrical impulses. This pathway is part of the limbic system which also processes our emotions and memory. This connection explains why we rarely have a neutral reaction to a taste or smell. We’ll form an instant like or dislike that stay in our subconscious.
The memories our senses of taste and smell invoke when we eat are often as rich and colourful as the foods themselves. Mashed fruit or warm milk link back to our early life as a baby safe in our mother’s arms. Rice dishes and curries might bring strong feelings of connection to family through communal cooking. We might recall the smoky flavour of fish freshly caught by our father and cooked on a campfire.
Sometimes food can be associated with unhappy memories such as eating soggy sandwiches alone in the schoolyard or living on baked beans when money was scarce. It can also be connected to poor body image and self-esteem.
The scientific view
Protein cells called neurotransmitters allow communication between the brain and the body. Some, including serotonin, influence numerous bodily functions like sleep, mood and pain perception. Changes in serotonin levels are known to influence General Anxiety Disorder, Depression, Insomnia and other mental and physical health conditions. Our bodies are built to generate the right combination of neurotransmitters for our individual needs and the foods we eat affect the quantity and type we produce.
Amino acids provide the resources for our bodies to build proteins. While the body can produce some forms of amino acid, most need to come from our food. If we don’t consume enough, our energy source is depleted and we have less ‘fuel in the tank’. Blood tests show that many people with fatigue-related conditions such as Fibromyalgia are deficient in amino acids.
When we eat foods with poor nutritional value, our liver, bowel and kidneys need to work harder to process them – compromising our immune and detoxification systems and diverting energy from the brain. Less energy to the brain equals fewer neurotransmitters for regulating mood, thinking and behaviour.
It is difficult to control our emotions when our physical needs are not being met. Children who don’t have a proper breakfast regularly are a prime example.
Nutritional deficiencies caused by stress or poor digestion can decrease serotonin levels. Anything that interferes with the production and balance of neurotransmitters can affect our thoughts, emotions and behaviour. This includes alcohol and drugs.
One amino acid in particular, tryptophan, works with vitamin B6 and enzymes to produce serotonin. It is mainly found in meat and dairy foods. Tryptophan levels can also be tested in the blood and again low levels are often associated with chronic fatigue conditions.
On the other hand, foods rich in tryptophan have had a measurable and positive effect on our mood. This could explain the feeling of contentment we get after savouring a roast beef or turkey dinner.
Comfort foods, such as chocolate or ice-cream, tend to be high sugar or fat which make us feel good in the short term but this burst of energy does not last and we are often more tired afterwards.
Many cultures have traditionally used food to promote a healthy mind and body. Ancient yogis connected the digestion of food to the flow of energy throughout the body. They believed that we have seven main centres of energy or ‘chakras’ positioned vertically along the spine from the base to the crown of the head. Each can both send and receive energy and each has specific physical and emotional functions. When the flow of this energy is blocked or slow, the related functions and emotions become out of balance.
The physical chakras
The Root Chakra is located at the base of the spine, this chakra focuses on our connection to the earth or the feeling of ‘being grounded’. It is associated with our bones, adrenals and waste elimination organs and also our sense of smell.
The Sacral Chakra is found in the lower abdominal area and incorporates our sex organs, bladder, prostate and womb. It is the centre of our emotions, sexuality and sensuality and is connected to our sense of taste.
The Solar Plexus Chakra is the body’s powerhouse. The energy produced here through our digestive system radiates throughout the whole body and influences our sense of sight, our vitality, our relationships and our self-esteem. An even flow of energy through the pancreas keeps our blood sugar levels balanced. Anxiety often triggers feelings of nausea or ‘butterflies’ in the stomach.
Moving upwards, the Heart, Throat, Third Eye and Crown Chakras take the energy generated through the solar plexus and feed it to our vital organs, nerves and glandular systems. They also control our senses of touch, hearing, sight and even our ‘sixth’ sense which gives us our intuition and dreams. These are the chakras that give energy to our relationships, thoughts and beliefs about ourselves and the world around us.
Food as complimentary medicine?
Whether you view the body’s energy in physical or spiritual terms, the message is the same. Consuming nutrient-rich foods that produce a balanced energy flow will have a positive effect on the whole body. However, if your diet is poor or unbalanced then you risk negative consequences.
Doctors are comfortable suggesting dietary changes for diabetes and heart conditions. Today more and more research is being done on using diet and supplements to help manage mental health conditions too.
Pro-active schools and workplaces are also getting on board, supplying a variety of fresh, healthy food for breakfast and lunch. It’s a win-win situation as healthy food creates increased energy which leads to greater productivity.
What can you eat to help improve your mood?
- A simple trick is to shop around the edges of the supermarket. That’s where all the fresh food is. The centre aisles contain the more heavily processed foods including those high in salt, fat and sugar.
- Healthy does not have to mean boring and it doesn’t have to be a chore. There are plenty of easy recipes that taste delicious. Some foods are perfect on their own. There is nothing like the sweet sensation of fresh mango or biting into a juicy apple. The taste of triple cream brie cheese or a steaming bowl of porridge on a cold morning can invoke wonderful feelings of comfort and pleasure.
- Don’t miss a food group without consulting your doctor or unless you have a medical reason to do so. Having a little bit of everything in moderation will provide you with a broad range of nutrients.
- Above all, don’t let food stress you. Avoid eating on the run. Be mindful when you eat. Feel the texture and chew slowly. Just enjoy the sensation and visualize your body absorbing all the goodness. It will help put both your mind and your body at piece.