Research has shown that there is a connection between what we eat and how we feel. The biochemical basis of this food-mood link lies in the chemical messengers, called neurotransmitters, that relay thoughts and actions along the neural pathways of the brain.
As food affects the action of these chemical messengers it can also have an impact on our mood. Nutrient choice is therefore important to support the thought process. Meal timing, portion sizes and the combination of foods, play a vital role in the regulation of mood and energy. They influence blood-sugar levels which can leave us as high as a kite one minute and scrambling through the cupboard the next, in search of a sugar fix
For this next exercise, look at how your food affects your creative performance. Like many of the exercises in this book, the benefits to be had by this approach will have an impact on other areas in your life.
Go Low Glycemic
Carbohydrates, in particular, affect our energy levels and mood. High sugar products raise blood sugar for a short period, always followed by a dip that leaves you unfocused and lethargic.
Low-glycemic carbohydrates (e.g. brown rice, pasta, vegetables), on the other hand, provide more stable energy and mood levels. Small portions of complex carbohydrate at regular intervals throughout the day will be effective in regulating energy.
Glycemic Index (GI) refers to the rate at which sugar from a particular food enters the cells of the body. Foods with a high glycemic index stimulate the pancreas to secrete insulin, quickly emptying sugar from the blood into the cells. This produces the familiar ups and downs of blood sugar and the roller coaster energy levels that go with it. Foods with a lower glycemic index do not push the pancreas to secrete so much insulin, so blood sugar tends to be steadier. Eating low GI foods and combining carbohydrate with protein and fibre will reduce the rate at which sugar empties into the cells.
You should, therefore, combine low GI carbohydrates, protein and vegetables or fruit in each meal or snack sitting. Some good examples are:
- Chicken, brown rice and roasted vegetables
- Salmon, couscous and greens
- Wholemeal pitta with tuna and salad
- Nuts and fruit
- Wholemeal cereal and semi-skimmed milk with fruit
The most effective way to keep energy level even across the day is to spread your calorie need over five to six small meals, rather than the traditional three. This can help you avoid the commonly experienced mid-morning and mid-afternoon energy dips that leave you lacking concentration and focus.
Unsurprisingly, the most common time for people to visit the office vending machine is mid-afternoon, as those who have not eaten a healthy lunchtime snack are on a mission to get a sugar-fix.
Prepare some healthy snacks in the morning so that your work-flow is not interrupted when you sit down to write, and think carefully about which nutrients you select for a brain boosting breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Foods With The Best Brain Balance
Fruit such as grapefruit, apples, cherries, oranges and grapes have a lower glycemic index. Fruit has a lower GI than fruit juice, because the fibre in the fruit slows the absorption of the fruit sugar. A whole apple will therefore be more brain friendly than apple juice.
For cereals and grains, oatmeal and bran have the lowest GI. Other foods with a favourable GI include spaghetti and brown rice. Corn flakes and sugar-coated cereals have a high GI and are therefore not ideal.
Vegetables, soybeans, kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils have the lowest glycemic index of any food. White potatoes have quite a high GI so try to opt for sweet potato instead.
Finally dairy products, milk and yoghurt have a low GI, slightly higher than vegetables but lower than fruit. Plain yoghurt has a lower glycemic index than flavoured yoghurts with added sugar.
During the winter months we are starved of sunlight and this can lead to a reduction in the release of serotonin, an important chemical found in the brain. Serotonin is referred to as the feel good hormone and reduction in its release can lead to the development of serious seasonal depression for some, or just a dip in mood for others. Interestingly, our food intake also has an impact on the release of this hormone and tweaking our diets can lead to an improvement in mood, or halt this dip altogether.
Particular foods have a calming effect on the body that results in heightened feelings of happiness. Chocolate can have this effect as it triggers the release of serotonin and endorphins that make us feel good. Other happy foods include chicken, milk, leafy green vegetables and bananas which all contain a compound called tryptophan.
Tryptophan is an amino acid and one of the building blocks of protein. It competes for access to the central nervous system, with several other amino acids, and it is thought to increase the brain’s production of serotonin, and subsequently to elevate mood.
It is known as Nature’s Prozac.
Proteins in the diet affect brain performance, either leaving us alert and productive or ready for bed. Rich foods can make us feel alert, jumpstarting the brain so we are ready for action.
Another amino acid that increases neurotransmitter activity is Tyrosine. High tyrosine foods include seafood, soy, meat, beans, tofu and eggs; eating them can leave you focused and motivated.
Essential Fatty Acids
Essential fatty acids (EFAs) also play a role in mood regulation. Those with low intakes of Omega 3 fatty acids have been found to be more likely to experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) during the winter months. Three to six grammes of EFAs – taken in the form of food like fish, avocado, nuts or supplements – are recommended for general health and mood promotion.
Water, Water Everywhere
Drinking enough water will also make a dramatic improvement to energy levels. Aim to sip on small glasses of water throughout the day. If you don’t want to interrupt your train of thought by nipping into the kitchen to re-fill your glass, fill a litre sports drink bottle and sip one over each half of the day.
If you would you like to learn more about these techniques, make sure you get a copy of Tom’s new book to find out where ideas really come from and how you can make sure yours actually happen …