Whole grain foods for a healthier mood?

I’ve suspected for a while now that what I eat has an impact on how I’m feeling. But I hadn’t really thought about how much my mood can affect what I eat.

It’s something I’m sure most of us have probably experienced – a busy day, a stressful situation, a ‘down’ moment – all can have us reaching for so-called ‘comfort food’ on complete autopilot. And, let’s face it, eating healthily, especially on a bad day, is a pretty big commitment. Buying fresh ingredients and ‘eating clean’ isn’t always cheap, and it’s definitely not as easy (or as therapeutic) as stabbing a ready meal with a fork after a hectic day at work!

So I was interested to hear how someone who’d consciously switched to a ‘no cake’, ‘no bread’, ‘no dairy’ whole grain foods diet felt it could help me manage my mood, when I went to my first ever talk on nutrition.

“Your mind is made from the food that you eat. Because food makes your body, it also nourishes your mind.”

Helping anxiety and stress with food wasn’t exactly the talk I thought it would be. I brought a notepad, expecting to document the Holy Grail of stress-relieving food lists, but instead learned exactly why a year and a half of anxiety has ultimately led me to lose control of my weight.

I feel like I should insert a trigger warning here, because in the first half an hour of this talk I found myself employing every deep-breathing calming technique I knew! I had no idea of the impact stress and anxiety could be having on my physical health – and knowing more about it was scary, especially as it’s a mental health condition that can be hard to control.

Apparently, when we’re stressed:

  • Our blood becomes more acidic. That means it takes more energy and minerals from elsewhere in the body to bring our blood down to the right pH levels.
  • We tend towards one of two extremes: sloppiness or perfectionism. Both of these mood changes are apparently linked to the acidity levels in our blood.
  • Our kidneys and adrenals become more depleted as the body tries to cope with what’s going on. I’m told Oriental medicine suggests that this can show in the under-eye area. Puffy/swollen under eyes could be a sign that these organs aren’t coping so well.
  • We experience liver and pancreas imbalances – so our blood sugar becomes affected. This can make us feel tired and moody as well as ‘showing’ as lines in the forehead area of the face (here’s hoping my recently-acquired forehead wrinkles are more down to my age instead!).
  • The body tries to re-balance itself and, as our blood sugar goes down, the pancreas (linked to the part of the brain that’s experiencing the initial stress) sends a message to the body that we need more sugary ‘comfort food’.
  • That sugar makes the body crave salt, which makes the body crave more sugar, which makes the body crave salt, which makes the body crave more sugar… and I think we can see where my anxiety weight gain has come from!

Now, I’m not a health professional, and I’m only relaying what was told to me at this talk (I’d always recommend seeking medical advice if you’re experiencing anxiety or thinking about changing your diet). But I did come away from the session wondering if learning more about how my body reacts to stress is the key to helping me manage it with diet?

The speaker named common things that that people tend to do to help them cope with worry (eating sugar, carb loading, drinking alcohol). These diet-related reactions to stress make much more sense when you realise how your body is trying to deal with its effects.

From hearing this talk and doing some research of my own, it seems that there could be certain foods we could try having less of if we want to live life worry free:

  • Sugar is the body’s way of trying to restore the energy we lose while it re-balances our blood PH and sugar levels. Unfortunately though, as we’ve seen, a quick sugar hit doesn’t fully restore the balance and we end up craving salt.
  • Carbs like bread and pasta, which contain gluten, can irritate our gut. They trigger an autoimmune response to the gluten protein which in turn releases small proteins called cytokines. When these cytokines enter the brain they can cause that to become inflamed too, leading to feelings of anxiety and depression.
  • Alcohol changes the chemistry of our brain. We might feel relaxed while this happens after our first drink, but as the alcohol starts to affect more of the brain it’s likely it will actually trigger anxiety or even a panic attack.

And the foods recommended at this talk for eliminating the effects of stress on the body?

  • Alkalising leafy greens to rebalance the pH levels in our blood.
  • Whole grains rather than refined carbohydrates to provide a slow release of energy and keep the sugar cravings at bay. The speaker followed a macrobiotic diet, which involves eating whole grains like barley and brown rice as a staple food.

So how could macrobiotics help a worried bread and cake addict like me? Well, while I’m not convinced I could cut out refined carbs and sugar from my diet completely, I don’t think it would harm me to test out the principles of a macrobiotic diet for just a little while.

At the end of the talk, the speaker suggests I try going without bread for a couple of days, as an example, then eating it again and seeing how I feel. He’s not suggesting a change in diet alone will help eliminate the root cause of my stress but, he says, it may help my body to handle stress better, rather than perpetuating it.

In theory all this makes sense. In practice? I’ll have to let you know!

Do you follow a macrobiotic diet? How does it help you cope with stress?

Posted in: Rinroad recovers