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Depression, nervousness, anxiety and irritability? Blame it on the food

September 19, 2006

Moody Food
junk-food_1_1.jpgShort temper, laziness, irritability, inattentiveness, fretfulness, dullness, moodiness…all these personality traits affect one adversely. But did you know that they could partly be a result of what you eat? You can try to combating these moods through sheer will power, or by a deliberate change of surroundings…or you can do it by changing your diet. Not such a revolutionary thought. It’s already been proved by research. There is mounting evidence that a consistently poor diet contributes to more than just high blood pressure, cancer and diabetes. It actually affects who you are!

Research studies

Study after study is demonstrating a link between diet and behaviour. In a recent American study, 80 school children aged six to twelve years were given vitamin and mineral supplements, and an improvement was found in their levels of aggression. A British study in which over two hundred young adult prisioners were given vitamin and mineral supplements, containing trace elements such as selenium, chromium and manganese showed a decrease in aggression levels. An Italian research project discovered that children who consumed large amounts of food made from refined flour had shortened memory and attention spans. Other studies have shown that the B vitamins are critical in nervous system function and deficiencies can lead to a whole gamut of emotional problems like depression, nervousness, anxiety and irritability.
Most amazingly, an UNICEF study last year reported that iron has an effect on intelligence and a lack of it can lower a child’s IQ by an average of five to seven points, and a deficiency in iodine can cut it by another 13 points.

Nutritionists speak
“Food affects mood which in turn impacts personality. You are what you eat,” says Dr. Anjali Mukherjee. It is out of proteins, fats and carbohydrates that we make our hormones and brain chemicals and these regulate how we feel. She gives the example of serotonin. Serotonin is a brain chemical which makes us feel calm and relaxed. “If you want a good night’s sleep, a good carbohydrate meal is what you should have because that is what helps produce serotonin,” she says. Echoes Anjali Kelkar, clinical nutritionist, ‘Serotonin is a feel-good chemical.’ Some of the other brain chemicals or neurotransmitters – dopamine and norepinephrine – make us feel alert, active and help us concentrate better. These are produced by the amino acids, which we get from protein-rich foods like chicken and eggs.

How exactly does the food we eat affect our brain?
Our nervous system is a network of cells called neurones which transmit information in the form of electrical signals. The total number of connections in your brain are about one thousand trillion and it is because of these connections that we are what we are and do what we do…walk, talk, laugh, run, think and feel. The brain has around a hundred billion neurones and each communicates with thousands of others at special junctions and to do this it needs ‘brain’ chemicals. The brain also needs other things – for example it uses twenty per cent of the heart’s output of blood and twenty percent of the oxygen consumed when the body is at rest. All this, the blood, the oxygen and the various chemicals that the brain needs, it gets from the food we provide. But remember – not just any food.


Refined foods are junk

Some foods are not only devoid of nutrition, they give us too much energy and too quickly. Take a simple thing like sugar. The brain wants it to come at regular intervals so that it can supply the body with a steady stream of energy. However sugar laden foods give you a sudden burst of energy, and then leave you feeling depleted. After the sugar is burnt up, the sugar levels in the blood plummet (this can also happen during fasting). The bad news is that low blood sugar triggers the release of certain chemicals in the body, which upsets the body’s chemical balance -what in technical terms is called neurotransmitter imbalance. The result? Irritability, inattentiveness and mood swings.

Research has now conclusively linked mood swings (high level of activity immediately followed by lethargy) to overconsumption of sugar-laden foods. It is not only white refined sugar that comes under this category but all refined carbohydrates (maida for example) and also oils. Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) in children has been linked to junk diets high in refined processed foods and additives. The link between ADHD and diet has been known for several years now,’ says Dr. N. Bijur, family physician.


We need nutrients for digestion too

Junk foods do more than just upset the sugar level in the body. We need nutrients even for digestion, and usually the nutrients which are present in that particular food are more than sufficient to do the job. But when our body tries to digest a refined processed food it finds that the food doesn’t have the nutrient required. Refined food is food stripped of it’s nutrients. Thus the body simply takes what it wants from body stores and that is how our bodies are slowly depleted, not just of vitamins and minerals, but also of enzymes. Enzymes are needed for digestion and metabolism of food and also have other vital neurological functions, all of which have still not been discovered. Often our body stores cannot provide the needed nutrients and the deficiency thus created alters our chemical and hormonal balance, leading to personality changes.
Just an example – A study in Canada demonstrated that less than adequate intake of vitamin B6 may produces subtle changes in mood even before a true lack of the vitamin develops!


Salty foods are ‘moody’ foods

Most of us know that excess salt has been linked to water retention and high blood pressure, but few of us know that it has also been linked to mood. Both sodium and potassium work together in regulating the balance of fluids inside and outside body cells…in other words sodium and potassium are what make our nerves and muscles work. But our sodium-potassium ratio has been upset due to our salty diet. A packet of salt and vinegar crisps for example contain up to one gram of salt, which is half the maximum daily intake recommended for a six year old. Our bodies can’t handle this, and tend to retain excess salt. It is theorised that we are vulnerable to salt retention because our ancestors had plenty of potassium rich foods but with little naturally occurring sodium in their diets. This makes us hang on to the salt we ingest, while excess potassium is excreted in the urine.
One has to beware of the high salt content of ready-made foods and in hotel food. In fact even our daily lives we use far more salt that we did traditionally.


Food can also be used to heal

Junk food is something we don’t need even at the best of times. And when already burdened with stress, a junk diet can make us feel depressed and unable to cope. “Food is not only a causing but a healing factor. When we are ill or stressed, we should be careful that we consume a low salt, low sugar and low caffeine diet. This is not only for our immune system to function properly but also to make us feel confident and positive,” says Anjali Kelkar, clinical nutritionist.


Variety is what we need

What are the foods that are best for our mental well-being? Not surprisingly, a variety of foods. ‘Every single food has a specific role to play – we can use food as medicine to get a specific response from our body,’ says Mukherjee.
It is not wise to avoid fats, which people on slimming diets often do. Our brain tissue is comprised of 60 per cent fat and thus we need to ingest fat. The good fats are the polyunsaturated fats which contain Omega 3’s (found in tuna, salmon, walnuts, canola oil, green leafy vegetables) and Omega 6s (found in cereals). Both these Omega’s are essential fatty acids, in the sense that they cannot be manufactured by the body and need to be consumed. Cholesterol, saturated fat and Trans Fat, which can be found in deep-fried foods and baked goods are bad for health. Monounsaturated fat constains the so-called good fat which lowers cholesterol. As it says here:

(MUFAs) lower total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) while increasing HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol). Nuts including peanuts, walnuts, almonds and pistachios, avocado, canola and olive oil are high in MUFAs


So what exactly are these Omega’s ?

Well, they have substances that are used in brain-building and for relaying messages between nerve cells. If a mother is deficient in a particular substance, problems could arise in the development of the child’s nervous and immune systems in the womb itself. Deficiencies in Omega-3 have also been linked to decreased memory and mental abilities.
Interestingly, cow’s milk is low in brain-building fats. Not surprising is it? We all know what mother cows want for their babies. They want their calves to grow rapidly and never mind the quality of it’s brain! Human milk on the other hand is rich in brain-building fats. In fact, the latest research shows that babies who are brought up on human milk tend to be more intelligent…and this could well be the cause.

However, fatty acids like the Omega’s do not work alone and need chemicals (lecithin for example) to facilitate their movement in and out of cells.


Is Diet everything?

Does this imply that children who throw temper tantrums, lazy teenagers with limited attention spans and highly irritable, fretful adults can blame their behavior on diet? Kelkar does not think so. ‘Diet is an important contributing factor in individual behavior but diet alone cannot change a person’s behavior,’ she says.
Research in this area has still not shown to what extent diet can be held responsible for human behavior. But then, psychiatrists know that a multitude of factors play a part. ‘Environment and genetic factors have an important role to play,’ says Dr. Namrata Bijur, who has a background in psychiatry.

Our individual body chemistry and how we assimilate our food is also critical. This depends on our genes, lifestyle, the amount of sunlight we are exposed to and how much we exercise. So, while diet cannot be the complete answer, it can help in providing us with a natural state of well-being. So the next time you see someone with a spring in his step and a smile on his face just ask him what he ate the day before!



Carbohydrates – from fruits, cereals, grains and vegetables.
Protein – from soya products, milk and milk products, sea-food, chicken, eggs and nuts.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids – from flaxseed oil and soya oil (not hydrogenated) and rapeseed oil. Also from oily fish like Salmon,Tuna. Dark green vegetables like Spinach. Walnuts and Sesame seeds
Vitamin B and C – from raw fruits and vegetables.
Iron, calcium, magnesium, selenium and zinc – from a variety of foods like vegetables, fruits, soya, milk, chicken and eggs.
Fiber – Although not directly involved in brain function, influences how other nutrients are absorbed.

(This article was published in The Times of India in 2005, and written by me for the Times)

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The chemicals we consume on a daily basis
How improper food packaging affects our health
Why instant noodles like Maggi are bad for our health
Cooking oils if re-heated can be dangerous

Other articles on Health

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The right time to see a psychiatrist or a counselor

17 Comments leave one →
  1. December 14, 2006 1:52 am

    “Interestingly, cow’s milk is low in brain-building fats. Not surprising is it? We all know what mother cows want for their babies. They want their calves to grow rapidly and never mind the quality of it’s brain! Human milk on the other hand is rich in brain-building fats – provided ofcourse the mother has a good diet.”

    What type of fats are found in mother’s milk that help in brain-building?

  2. December 14, 2006 5:15 am

    They are called Essential Fatty Acids, or EFA’s. Mother’s milk is rich in Omega 3, which is an EFA and very good for our brain.

  3. December 14, 2006 12:29 pm

    By type of fat I meant- saturated, monounsaturated or polyunusaturated.

  4. December 14, 2006 12:39 pm

    Essential fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids and are the parent compounds of the omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.

  5. Nite Rules permalink
    January 13, 2007 7:13 pm

    Another brilliant article that is very beneficial to mankind.
    Truly, you are what you eat. This has been told thousands of years ago in the Vedas and the Gita. Especially in the Atharva Veda, which is the world’s foremost scientific manual, we are taught how a well proportioned vegetarian meal accompanied by fasting once a month is the healthiest way to live. It is not wise to eat meats, or eat things like salt and sugar excessively (as Nitaji clearly shows in this article).

  6. Sergio permalink
    February 25, 2007 9:13 pm


    Thank you for this article. I am 32 and have always had my body “not feeling right,” or irritable, or week. All my life I have had a poor diet (fried foods, sweets, no veggies, etc.). I am more and more aware thta the way I feel is in great part to my poor diet.

    I am ready for a change. What I would like aasistance with is finding out how to start this change correctly. Where can I search for this information.

    Thank you,


  7. February 26, 2007 5:28 am

    Sergio, while there are a lot of sites where one can get information on diet, it is always best to see a nutritionist in person. This way the diet can be tailored to your individual needs, which means your lifestyle, like how much exercise you do, your favorite foods etc. It also depends on whether you have any other medical problems. Therefore if you have not been feeling ‘right’, the first thing you need to do is have a thorough medical check-up and inform your doctor that you have a poor diet.

  8. March 19, 2007 2:51 am

    I am not sure if the food is the culprit of mood swings but I know one for sure chocolate is the one solution to getting over from a bad mood.:)

  9. Pranali permalink
    June 10, 2007 10:46 pm

    Hi there,
    Can anyone help me get in touch with Dr. Namrata Bijur?

  10. June 10, 2007 10:52 pm

    Can you tell me why you need to talk to Dr. Bijur? Because she is has a job with a corporate, and is not in private practice. She only works for the company employees.
    If you need a psychiatrist, its best you visit a reputed hospital in your city.

  11. Ahmed permalink
    August 20, 2007 5:16 pm


    which is a good omega 3 supplement available in india for a 5-year old kid?


  12. August 20, 2007 6:25 pm

    I am afraid I am not a doctor. I am a writer.

  13. May 22, 2008 1:23 pm

    Wow! This is really a thorough discussion on food. I was seraching the percentage of food nutrients that go to the brain…. Can’t seem to find it though…or maybe i missed look it?

  14. January 4, 2011 1:34 pm

    Hey Nita,
    thank you for the nice write up. it is very useful

  15. ninz permalink
    January 22, 2011 10:49 am

    I am doing my own theory of personality.Upon browsing the net i have found your article,.. diet choice affects personality, what is the implication of this study to education?

  16. supportlentils permalink
    January 25, 2012 9:15 pm

    Lentils and other dried beans are not mentioned as a good source of protein, vitamins and fiber. Vegetarians count on this for their good health. Why has this been left out?

  17. Eques permalink
    June 16, 2015 3:14 pm

    No apostrophe needed in “omegas” “or omega 3s”

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