Foods to Improve Your Mood

Interview by Elizabeth Schainbaum

Nancy Hoffman, PsyD

Nancy Hoffman, PsyD

For Nancy Hoffman, PsyD, the old adage “you are what you eat” doesn’t just relate to physical health. It’s also mental.

The simple neuroscience behind eating begins with how nutrients influence the brain’s chemical composition. Foods that boost neurotransmitters, such as serotonin or dopamine, can also boost our mood, alertness, and ability to cope with stress.

A licensed clinical psychologist with specialized training in neuropsychology, Dr. Hoffman  is based at Kaiser Permanente Union City Medical Offices.

Briefly explain the neuroscience behind what we eat.

Our functions are controlled by neurochemicals. The 4 we are going to talk about during the webinar are dopamine, serotonin, endorphins, and choline. They tell us if we feel good or if we feel bad. If we don’t have the right neurochemicals, we are going to feel bad. We are like a car, and we will run well if we have the right fuel. Knowing how the neurochemicals work helps us understand how we can eat to feel better.

What’s a common mistake people make with food?

Eating sugar. When we are tired, we turn to it, and it gives us a boost. But then our blood sugar drops down below what it was before we had the sugar. Then we have to keep eating it to keep our energy up, and that can cause weight gain and health problems such as diabetes. A better solution would be to walk around the block once or twice because exercise gets our blood moving and helps oxygenate our bodies. Going outside is also good because of the vitamin D exposure you get from the sun.

Are there foods that you’d call ‘brain food’?

Some people think salmon, avocado, and walnuts are brain food because they have high levels of Omega 3 fatty acids. It’s really hard to know for a fact if that’s true because we can’t confirm it. That said, it goes without saying that a piece of salmon is better than a hotdog. But is salmon better than chicken? Not sure.

Please share 4 tips for improving our mood with food.

Breakfast. People who eat breakfast have more energy than people who skip it. Be sure to eat a little bit of carbohydrates and protein versus a sugary breakfast because a balanced meal will stabilize your blood sugar, which affects our mood.

Exercise. Try to get some sort of exercise every day, even if it’s just a 15- to 30-minute walk. You want to get the blood circulating because that releases endorphins, improves mood, and it keeps our weight down. Exercise is the only thing shown by research to keep our brains in good shape.

Water. Drink a sufficient amount of water. Even being a little bit dehydrated can affect our ability to think, and dehydration can cause blood pressure to rise. We also feel fatigued if we don’t have enough water. A sufficient amount varies from person to person but it usually means 8-ounce glasses 6 to 8 times a day. If you exercise more, you need more. If you drink caffeine, you need more.

Soda. Avoid soda. There are no redeeming qualities in soda. It has lots of sugar, acts like a diuretic, and it’s very addicting. The sugar-free ones are full of chemicals.

Please explain the biochemical response behind cravings.

Generally, we want to eat something if we are tired, sad, or stressed. You don’t crave broccoli. You crave mac and cheese. The fat and the carbs have a very soothing effect. When you crave sugar, you are trying to bolster your mood. When we are stressed, we crave salty foods. What you want is to be aware and understand what you really need, so you can make healthier choices.