Exploring the Link Between Food and Mood

Photo credit: Skinny Chef

For years, I have been struggling with a cyclical winter funk. Breezily dismissing the symptoms, I’d justify it, saying my normal outgoing self needed “down time.” Armed with a stack of books and an arsenal of films, I’d clear my dance card, pull a fluffy comforter high around my neck, and hibernate. Often, I was too tired to read and alternated between sleep and the drone of mindless TV. As the days turned into weeks, and the weeks—shockingly—slipped into months, alarm bells started going off.

What the hell?!

This is NOT normal.

I ran through a slew of possibilities. Seasonal Affective Disorder is quite common in northern climates. Or maybe I’m depressed? I went looking for answers…and it dawned on me.

I‘ve been researching the impact of early childhood nutrition and its impact on the brain. Maybe it was time to look at my own diet? I picked up a copy of “Food & Mood” and suddenly, things started to make sense.

Here’s what I found:

Your brain creates a hormone called serotonin, which regulates your mood. Commonly known as the "happiness hormone", when in check, serotonin is attributed to restful sleep, and helps moderate cravings for carbohydrate-rich sweets and starches. In fact, a critical step in managing symptoms associated with PMS, seasonal affective disorder, and depression is linked back to managing serotonin levels through nutrition. (The rising trend in anti-depressant drugs? Many of those drugs are designed to regulate serotonin levels. I chose to explore my eating habits first.)

Grumpiness and depression are brought on by low serotonin levels and dwindling energy reserves. This triggers cravings for carbohydrate-rich “comfort foods” like pastries, pasta, cereals, and breads. Once satisfied, the serotonin level elevates, and the cravings subside.

The problem? Fuel from these bad carbs is fleeting. Within a few hours, energy levels crash and the cycle—including the symptoms-- is repeated throughout the day.

I began studying the trends in my own eating behavior. For me, PMS and happiness equals a loaf of bread and a hunk of triple-cream Cambozola. Carb loading for serotonin? This made perfect sense. And I’d happily whip up a cake or a batch of brownies before I’d even think about dinner. Suddenly the reasons behind my bizarre eating habits were beginning to make sense.

Nutritionally, I was like a crack addict, constantly in need of a fix.

My drug of choice?


That, teemed with the constant dose of sugar…no wonder I was in a sad state. My serotonin levels were completely out of whack.

Food and Mood” summed it best “The secret is to use the right kind of quality carbs to raise serotonin levels, without causing a spike in blood sugar levels, and get your mood back on track.”

I’d been dealing with this problem for so long, when I read those words, I nearly wept. Not only had this book identified my classic symptoms, but a solution was close at hand.

The key?

Quality carbs.

Whole grains sustain energy and help regulate cravings for sweets. As an added bonus they also help you manage weight and keep blood sugars at moderate levels. (Research says a diet rich in whole grains also helps lower the risk for heart disease, diabetes, hypertension and possibly cancer.) Breakfast is also a critical component.* The book discusses this is more detail but let’s just say, it’s non-negotiable. And so is exercise, which helps regulate the blood sugar levels and provides an energy boost—without the calories.

I’ve stocked up on oatmeal, opted for whole grain pastas, and for my bread cravings, I’m now making my own. The publishers sent me a copy of “Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day” and I’ve been playing with that. While I’m not in love with the master recipe (needs more salt, the flavor’s pretty bland, and the texture leans towards “gummy.”), it my sparked my curiosity. I’m on the hunt for a delicious whole grain bread recipe…if you’ve got one, please send it my way!

Over the past few months, it’s been quite a journey, examining my relationship with food. I’ve got the lowdown on restaurants and noteworthy chefs coast to coast, but when it came to nutrition and knowing my own body? I was clueless. This has definitely been a turning point.

Here’s to feeling better!

Side note: At this point, I’m not ruling out Seasonal Affective Disorder as another factor in my health issues. In the dark, dreary months of winter, our bodies suffer from a lack of Vitamin D, normally obtained from sunlight exposure. Getting outside—even on an overcast day--can help. Going forward, I’ll be exercising and getting outside more, but I’m not ruling out the need for a lightbox.

* Until recently, I’ve never made a habit of eating breakfast. As I learn more, I realize how critical breakfast is, and I’ve become a big fan of oatmeal and cereals. Just as I was figuring out the link between feeling better and eating better, I received a sample of the Nature’s Path line. Nutrition and sustainability are a major focus for Nature’s Path, and that had a lot of appeal. While I’d steer clear of the Nature’s Path granola bars (gut bombs) and toaster pastries (a la pop tart), the cereals were a happy find. I tried everything—including the gluten-free offerings. All of them were winners. My favorites were the flax seed cereals and any of the granolas. If you’ve got kids in the house, the kid-focused cereals (Granola Munch) and flavored oatmeals will make even the most finicky eaters look forward to breakfast.