A little about me: I run my own business, which includes my nutritional counselling practice, media work, writing, group presentations…and everything in between. I run it by myself as a sole proprietor. Most of the time I love it. However sometimes my work gets crazy and stressful and I feel stuck.
It’s easy to feel stuck when you are on your own and can’t lean on anyone else. Sometimes I can’t get out of my own head.
During these times, I have a tendency to feel down and let stress overwhelm me. I’ve let it happen a few times before. Maybe more than a few times. I’m more vulnerable to feel this way in the winter, during the longer, colder and darker days.
This year, I’ve worked to take an active approach in managing my mood, energy and stress. There are a number of modifications that I’ve made in my diet, supplements and lifestyle that I will be sharing with you today.
Mood, Stress, Energy & Brain Chemicals
First, let’s take a closer look at the science of mood, stress and energy levels. A number of chemicals play a key role.
- Serotonin – a chemical that has a wide variety of functions in the human body. It is sometimes called the happy chemical, because it contributes to wellbeing and happiness.
- Dopamine – Dopamine is a major neurotransmitter that’s a key factor in motivation, productivity, and focus.
- Cortisol – is a steroid hormone that regulates a wide range of processes throughout the body including metabolism and the immune response. Most notably, it plays a key role in helping the body respond to stress.
What happens when these chemicals are out of wack?
When serotonin is too low, we tend to reach for quick-digesting carbs. AKA sugar. This is a quick way to boost serotonin.
When we are low in dopamine, we will be low in motivation and often rely on caffeine, sugar and other stimulants throughout the day. A poor diet and nutritional deficiencies can contribute to low dopamine. If you eat a high calorie, high carb and high fat diet, you receive a rush of dopamine as this is inherently pleasurable and excites neurons. This is fine once in awhile, however if you do this a lot, these neurons start to get less excited with the same stimulous. This can lead to food addiction.
When cortisol is too high, it causes food cravings, and in women those cravings tend to be strongest for carbs, especially sweet foods, according to researchers at the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center. The more of them we eat, the worse our mood gets. In addition, the cortisol also triggers an enzyme in our fat cells to manufacture more visceral fat, leading to the accumulation of more belly fat.
How do they work together? If cortisol is too high, it down-regulates serotonin receptors, making serotonin less effective and disinhibits dopamine. This causes a low mood and causes use to constantly craving comfort foods.
My goal is to keep these chemicals managed. How do I do it?
- Extra Omega 3’s
A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids helps keep cortisol and adrenaline from spiking when you’re feeling tense. The omega-3 fatty acids in salmon have anti-inflammatory properties that may help counteract the negative effects of stress hormones. For example, university medical students who took omega-3 supplements had a 20% reduction in anxiety compared to the group given placebo pills. There are Omega 3’s found in plant foods as well. These foods include walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds and soy. The omega 3’s found in these foods are ALA’s, which are less bioavailable then EPA and DHA, which are found in fatty fish. Vegetarian? No problem, there are vegetarian EPA and DHA supplements. Check out my favourite one here.
- Healthy Fats in General
Healthy fats aren’t just Omega 3’s – they’re also monounsaturated fats. The types that are found in nuts, seeds and avocados. I do try to limit my intake of saturated fat (found in meat and dairy) as studies have shown that eating a lot of saturated fat decreases dopamine receptor sensitivity. I’ve found during days where my fat intake is low, I’m more likely to crave sugar. This makes sense, as fat is the macronutrient that brings the most long-term satiety (more than protein and fibre). Sugar has been found to boost dopamine, but this is a temporary, unhealthy boost that is more drug-like than food-like and ultimately contributes to deficiency.
- Lots of B Vitamins
We need B vitamins for healthy nerves and brain cells, and feelings of anxiety may be rooted in a B vitamin deficiency. For example folate helps the body create new cells and supports serotonin regulation.
Food sources of B Vitamins: Green leafy veggies, avocado, legumes, nuts and seeds.
I’ve been adding adaptogens to my supplement routine and have had a great experience so far. An adaptogen is a natural substance considered to help the body adapt to stress, if supplemented in advance of a stressful event. Not all adaptogens are evidenced-based, however one I’ve been having lately is – Rhodiola Rosea. Check out the evidence summary here. I’ve experienced a reduction in fatigue and slightly stimulatory effect after taking Rhodiola Rosea. The brand I’m taking is Rhoziva. Make sure you clear it with your doc if you have a medical condition or are on meds before starting an adaptogen.
- Daily Yoga
It’s no secret that yoga and meditation can help with reducing cortisol levels. I’ve never fully understood this though, until I started practicing yoga daily. This has made a world of a difference in my mental health, along with the way my body feels. If you spend the majority of your time at a desk, you need to incorporate yoga into your daily routine. I follow a number of online Youtube yoga videos, including Yoga with Adrienne and Boho Beautiful.
- Probiotics & Fermented Foods
As bizarre as it may sound, the bacteria in your gut might be contributing to stress. Research has shown that the brain signals to the gut, which is why stress can inflame gastrointestinal symptoms; communication may flow the other way too, from gut to brain. Actually, 90% of serotonin produced in gut. A 2013 UCLA study among 36 healthy women revealed that consuming probiotics in yogurt reduced brain activity in areas that handle emotion, including stress compared to people who consumed yogurt without probiotics or no yogurt at all.Foods high in natural probiotics such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha and raw sauerkraut can also increase natural dopamine production. An overabundance of bad bacteria leaves toxic byproducts called lipopolysaccharides which destroy the brain cells that make dopamine. It’s also a great idea to add a probiotic to your supplement regime!
- Herbal Teas
Caffeine acts as a stimulant and can increase the stress hormone cortisol when consumed in high amounts. You do not need to eliminate coffee; however, you do want to ensure that you are not over-doing itI try to have herbal teas daily, including my favourite – chamomile. A study from the University of Pennsylvania tested chamomile supplements on 57 participants with generalized anxiety disorder for 8 weeks, and found it led to a significant drop in anxiety symptoms. Of course, I’d much prefer you drink it in tea form—that way, you’ll get the warm, wonderfully calming feeling of holding a mug of tea as you sit in a quiet spot before bed.
- Sunshine & Outdoors
A daily dose of sunshine sure helps me stabilize my mood. Serotonin, rises with exposure to bright light and falls with decreased sun exposure. In 2006, scientists evaluated the effects of Vitamin D on the mental health of 80 elderly patients and found those with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 11 times more prone to be depressed than those who received healthy doses. Low vitamin D levels are also associated with an increased risk of panic disorders.While you can get some vitamin D in foods like salmon, egg yolks, and mushrooms, your best solution for optimizing your levels is through sensible sun exposure and Vitamin D supplementation.
There you have it! I try to incorporate these 8 things into my daily routine in order to manage my mood, stress and energy levels. I would love to hear what you do as well!