Managing Moods with Foods

It Might Not Be What’s Eating You, But What You are Eating



It’s not our imagination—more people these days are in “pissy” moods. Folks are more irritable, angry, anxious, impulsive and distracted than they used to be.

We see these bad moods practically anytime we drive a car. People impatiently rush into an elevator before occupants get out. Others express annoyance while waiting in line at the supermarket. Similar incidents happen almost every day.

A poll reported by the Associated Press confirms that rude behavior is more common now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Another study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry reported in 2006 that 16 million Americans had terrorized others with outbursts of explosive rage.

What’s going on?

As a sociologist and nutritionist, I blame two factors: the mounting stresses of modern life and the deterioration in eating habits. When we’re stressed—and who doesn’t feel pressured by a lack of time—our eating habits are the first thing to slide. We delay meals or skip them completely, then end up quenching our hunger at the nearest fast-food restaurant. The trouble is that junk foods and snacks turn blood sugar levels into a roller coaster pulling our mood in tow. Just as bad, they shortchange the neuronutrients we need for healthy moods and behavior.

Balancing Blood Sugar

If you’re skeptical about the food-mood connection, think about how you feel after eating.  If your blood sugar climbs too high after you eat, you get sleepy. According to research reported in Neuron, that’s because high blood sugar suppresses orexin, a brain chemical responsible for alertness. When blood sugar is low, you get hungry and may also feel impatient, irritable and physically weak. Extreme blood-sugar swings even point to poor glucose tolerance, a form of prediabetes.

Every restaurant waiter knows that moods often follow blood-sugar levels, resulting in a good mood when you’ve recently eaten and a grumpy mood when you haven’t. So how can you stabilize your blood sugar levels—and moods—naturally?

First, I recommend staying away from sugary sweets, soft drinks, bagels and muffins. You’ll likely do much better eating lean proteins, such as fish and chicken (so long as they’re not deep fried), and high-fiber vegetables like salads, broccoli and cauliflower. A couple slices of deli turkey and cheese can act as a fast mood stabilizer.

Boosting Neuronutrients

Another way to improve mood is to take extra amounts of supplemental neuronutrients. The body uses neuronutrients to make neurotransmitters, the brain chemicals that regulate mood. Most neurotransmitters are made from protein building blocks called amino acids, along with vitamins and minerals. (See sidebar.)

Anger Issues

Anger related issues range from impatience and irritability to resentment, argumentativeness, outbursts, road rage, destructive behavior and criminal violence. Know that anger is a “secondary” emotion, stemming from frustration, hurt or pain. Taking the following steps can help defuse these feelings.

To start, it helps to learn to recognize when anger is building, and then develop an inner reset switch to turn it off. It might help to take several deep breaths or move away from the triggering situation. It might also help to get feelings out physically, but safely, such as by hitting a piñata with a baseball bat.

In terms of supplements, my first recommendation is always to take a high-potency multivitamin or B-complex supplement. Research conducted at the University of Wales in the mid-1990s suggests that it should contain at least 10 times (1,000 percent) the recommended daily amount of vitamins B1, B2 and B3.

Next I recommend vitamin C (500 milligrams [mg] twice daily) because research documented in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has found that the first signs of deficiency are irritability and fatigue. I also suggest taking omega-3 fish oils (3 grams daily) because they can reduce aggressive and hostile behavior, including aggressive driving, bullying, verbal abusiveness and fighting (Nutritional Neuroscience). All of these neuronutrients are involved in either making neurotransmitters or in helping brain cells communicate with each other.

Anxiety & Panic

Today we might use words like tension, nervousness, worry, fear or panic to describe feelings of anxiety. Some people are so jittery and high-strung that they’re like a stretched rubber band about to snap. The now-antiquated term “nervous breakdown” referred to such physical and mental exhaustion after prolonged intense anxiety.

Often when a person begins feeling anxious the anxiety level rapidly escalates. A little nervousness makes us more nervous. Because the effects of caffeine can mimic the early symptoms of an anxiety attack, it’s important to wean off of coffee and colas. Bouts of low blood sugar also can resemble anxiety, so it’s good to avoid sugary foods and refined carbohydrates that quickly boost and then drop blood sugar levels.

Again, a high potency B-complex supplement and vitamin C usually can ease anxiety and panic symptoms. As can magnesium citrate (300 mg, twice daily), which helps relax muscles.

In addition, a study noted in Alternative & Complementary Therapies found that gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) supplements (200 mg, twice daily) and L-theanine (100 mg, twice daily) can boost brain levels of GABA, resulting in greater calm and better mental focus.

Finally consider adding lactium (200 mg, twice daily), a protein-like molecule extracted from dairy. This also works to lessen stress-induced anxiety.

Adult ADHD

Multitasking, one of the demands of contemporary work environments, actually encourages behavior that is characteristic of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It forces us to do multiple tasks simultaneously regardless of the limits of multitasking. For example, an article in the Scientific American Mind confirms that doing one task at a time results in higher quality, faster work.

When we multitask, no single task gets our complete attention. One study covered in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that the brain slows down as it toggles between activities. Unfortunately, when such behavior is combined with a diet low in neuronutrients, that tendency gets reinforced. We find ourselves multitasking impulsively, unable to patiently tackle one activity at a time.

It helps to consciously resist the impulse to multitask, though initially this may be difficult. For instance, when engaged in one task, you don’t “have to” check email or answer the phone. When driving, you do need to pull off the road to talk on the cell phone. The driver in front of you is not paying attention when he’s gabbing on his phone and neither are you. The more you try to do the less efficient you become.

Finally, do your best to avoid the refined oils found in fries and nearly all packaged foods, fast foods and microwave meals. Instead emphasize fish, so long as it’s not deep fried. In addition take omega-3 fish oils (3 grams daily), gamma-linolenic acid (a plant oil, 200 mg daily), GABA (400-500 mg twice daily) and Pycnogenol (100 mg, twice daily).

In summary, you’ll do yourself—and all those around you—a huge favor by finding healthy ways to manage the stresses in your life and just relax. At the very least I recommend eating a diet of healthy whole foods that supply abundant neuronutrients plus a high-potency multivitamin or B-complex supplement. Then try other supplements as needed to mellow your mood.


Jack Challem is the author of The Food-Mood Solution and Stop Prediabetes Now (Wiley, 2007). For more information visit www.FoodMoodSolution.com.

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