he mind–body connection is something that you can’t deny. We all know that what we think and feel has an effect on what our bodies do. If you have been suffering from a stress-related disorder or mental problem (which is why you are thinking about hypnotherapy) then you know exactly what this means. You know how stress, anxiety and panic make your stomach clench and your heart race. You know how fear makes you feel sick and off your food.
The way we feel often affects the way we eat, and the way we eat also affects our moods. This is often one reason why emotional eating (comfort eating), where people eat more than they know they should in order to deal with a negative emotion, is so powerful and can become quite an addiction. What you eat really does make you feel better.
Comfort eating and food addiction are a topic in themselves, and we’ll only touch on it briefly here. In a nutshell, comfort eating is a reaction to a negative situation and an attempt to fill an emotional gap or heal an emotional wound by stuffing it with food. And if you have this sort of problem, the chances that you are hitting the salad in excess as a form of comfort eating is unlikely – it’s always the sweet, the fatty and the starchy that we turn to in this sort of situation. Possibly this is because these foods are associated with celebrations and eating them is an attempt to recapture the positive feelings of a celebration to replace the negative emotions. Here, dealing with the underlying emotional problem or unhappiness is the solution, which has to be done by working with the deep parts of the psyche.
But if we feel a bit run down and under stress, eating the right foods in the right quantities can really help. It’s very common for people to get cranky, irritable, snappish and emotional when their blood sugar levels run low. Having a wee bite or two when you’re like this is certainly going to make you feel better. One woman (we’ll call her Sally) once struggled with blocking out negative thought patterns that always seemed to run through her mind at the end of the day during dinner. These thoughts would lower her self-esteem and would also make her bad-tempered with her family. In an attempt to change her mental script (a very important aspect of having a healthy emotional life), Sally tried to identify her triggers for getting into this negative emotional loop and realised that she always slid into this pattern when she was hungry just before dinner. The solution: to eat a small snack while preparing dinner (and ignoring the rule from her childhood about not eating just before dinner and spoiling her appetite). Just something like a handful of dried fruits or a single slice of bread and peanut butter. The change in Sally – and for Sally’s family – was dramatic.
However, blood sugar levels are just a small part of the equation when it comes to foods and moods. Some foods are better at boosting your mood than others. This is because these foods contain an amino acid that is used for building serotonin. Serotonin is the brain chemical that makes us feel satisfied, happy and at peace. And certain foods stimulate the production of serotonin, similar to the way that other foods (especially coffee) stimulate adrenaline. The role of serotonin and the importance of having good levels of serotonin is well known, and many prescription antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications work by stopping the body reabsorbing the serotonin it has produced so there’s plenty in the system to keep you calm.
The amino acid in question is tryptophan. In fact, tryptophan supplements have been used as a more natural substitute for antidepressants. Treatment with tryptophan and with antidepressants is sometimes necessary, but except in extreme cases, they should not be a long-term solution if an emotional problem is the root cause for that depression or anxiety. But for a lot of us, the old adage of letting food be our medicine and letting our medicine be our food is a good one and seldom comes with side-effects.
As an added advantage, serotonin is needed to promote good sleep, so foods containing tryptophan make excellent suppers or bedtime snacks as a way of ensuring good sleep and promoting relaxation.
So what foods are rich in the tryptophan needed for making serotonin? The number one food should come as no surprise: chocolate. This is why chocolate addictions are so prevalent – eating chocolate really does boost your mood. But before you go and purchase a large block of chocolate and wolf down the lot in an attempt to feel better, remember that moderation is the key and that chocolate is not the only source of tryptophan. When you do have some chocolate, go for dark chocolate with 70% or more cocoa solids to get the maximum amount of tryptophan, and allow yourself 50 grams a day. Schedule a dark chocolate break and savour it!
Other foods that are great sources of tryptophan include:
- Oily fish such as salmon and tuna
- Strawberries and raspberries (strawberries dipped in dark chocolate… mmm!)
- Apricots, fresh or dried
- Yeast – and this includes that Aussie favourite, Vegemite
- Nuts, especially walnuts, Brazil nuts, cashews and hazelnuts (also decadent dipped in dark chocolate)
- Brown rice and rice bran
- Lentils (make it into hummus or a dip)
- Sunflower seeds
- Pumpkin seeds
- Red meat
- Chicken and turkey
- Cheese and other dairy products
- Chick peas
This list is enough to inspire any cook and has probably demonstrated the mind–body link by making your mouth water at some point. They’re also readily available in the majority of good supermarkets. And a lot of those foods aren’t super-expensive (Vegemite, lentils and fruit, for example), meaning that everyone should be able to afford to include them in the menu. Many are simple to prepare into the bargain – poached eggs alongside a salad containing broccoli, avocado dried apricots and sunflower seeds can be prepared in less time than it takes to whip down to the local takeaway. What more could you ask?
Just remember the golden rule – moderation!