Foods and Moods

Can food impact mood? Most certainly. When we feel a “bad mood” coming on from an obvious trigger (such as a deep disappointment) we may reach for a high carbohydrate food. Why? Because the brain wants to boost some neurotransmitters that suffer from the emotional upset, and the quick fix seems to be pizza, chips, milk chocolate, or ice cream. This is not really what the brain wants, but it is how some people often interpret what it is asking for. What does the brain really need? Omega 3-fatty acids, like wild-caught salmon. But where’s the fun in that? When was the last time you heard someone say, “We just broke up, and now I want to eat a pound of salmon”? And yet, that is what the “craving” is asking for, though we misinterpret it as a carbohydrate need.

Key Questions

Learning how to translate the language of your body’s communication becomes increasingly important as you age. This is because food affects more than just mood. It affects your immune system, energy, ability to lose and gain weight, to concentrate, heal, rise to the occasion, and even to relax. Since this is the case, key questions become: “How can I know which foods do what?” and “Which foods will work for or against me?” The answers are both simple and complex. “Simple” because there are certain principles that work for everyone across the board; “complex” in that each human body is, to varying degrees, unique.

The rest of this article will attempt to address (a) what the human body is trying to signal with mood, energy, weight, attention and concentration, and anxiety; (b) how you can know which foods work for you; and finally, (c) how to figure out the signals your unique body gives you to tell you what is necessary and when.

Vital Answers

Let’s begin with the simple principles that apply to most people. White sugar, high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors/ flavors/ sweeteners, and white flour (as well as flour made from wheat treated with pesticides) all cause inflammation in the gut. This compromises the body’s ability to fight infection, and may also cause inflammation in joints (i.e., fingers, ankles, knees, hips) as well. These “across the board” truths apply to most people.

The “complex” part comes into play when we deal with the uniqueness of each human body. That is, if a forty-year-old is living with an auto-immune diagnosis, that person would likely be more deeply affected by the negative impact of foods that cause inflammation than would a younger person twenty years of age who does not have an auto-immune condition. Specifically, the older person might feel stiff joints and possibly digestive issues (i.e., gas and bloating) from an eggplant parmesan hero that the younger person might eat without negative consequences. What is most confusing is that the forty-year-old might have actually been that twenty-year-old, suddenly shocked by the need to avoid what worked well decades prior.

Know Your Mood

In your effort to understand what your body is trying to signal with a bad mood, you begin by observing your own behavior, your lifestyle choices and how your mood, energy, concentration and health seem to correlate with what you eat, think, and do. This is easier for some than for others. If it sounds daunting, you might want to invite a nutritionist or functional medicine health provider to accompany you along this journey of self-discovery. Mood (including anxiety, a feeling of generalized irritation, impatience and the like) could be rooted in an unresolved emotional issue, or it might very well be a reaction to a food. If you are in a bad mood but everything in your orbit seems relatively fine – bills are under control, life stressors are not an issue, and those around you are “inner circle” people with whom you feel safe on all levels – then the bad mood might signal a food sensitivity, or that your body is fighting a virus, or even that you didn’t get enough restful hours of sleep. (If emotion is a key issue, then a well-educated mental health professional might also be able to assist).

At best, mood is a vague signal – but a definite flag that some part of your mind, body, and/or spirit is not being adequately addressed (according to your brain, the CEO of your body). Correlating mood with food intake works very well for many of my patients. You can do this on your own by knowing your mood when you awaken, jotting it down, and then eating whatever you usually eat. After about twenty minutes, observe your body for energy or sudden fatigue, see if your heart is pounding, and observe your mood. This technique of picking up on your body in response to food also works for deliberate weight reduction. (Questions about this point may be directed to my email, and I’ll be happy to guide you.) The take-away here is that understanding the correlation between the food you eat and your body’s reaction to it becomes an important healing skill to master.

The general, across-the-board food choices that tend to help boost mood in a healthful way by pleasing the brain are the same foods that boost the immune system, help you lose weight, help your skin to tan rather than burn, and help support the retina and macula, located behind the eyes. These foods include dark leafy greens (such as organic kale, collard greens, Swiss chard, dark lettuce, spinach), and foods high in Omega 3-fatty acids (such as mackerel, wild caught Alaskan salmon, cod liver oil, herring, oysters, sardines). Almonds are also helpful, as are fermented foods and probiotic supplements. Please speak with your primary healthcare provider before changing your lifestyle, diet, and/or exercise routine. As stated earlier and throughout this article, each human body is unique, and what works for one might not work well for another. Here’s to your best health!

Note: On August 3, 2018, from 7:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., Dr. Iankowitz will present “The Human Body Is Designed to Self-Heal” at the Holmes Whaley Lake Civic Association at 239 Route 292 in Holmes. To register, call the Pawling Library at (845) 855-3444.

Dr. Nancy Iankowitz is a board certified family nurse practitioner and Director of Holistic and Integrative Healing LLC. She is also host of “Marcy’s World”on Pawling Public Radio. Email your questions to: For more information, call (917) 716-6802, or visit online.