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food and mood

Source: Vitality, 2000, 5(4)

James and Sarah Arney celebrated their first anniversary in a most unusual way. They entered an oyster-eating contest at Bentley's Restaurant in London. Sarah could only choke back 15. James, however, won the contest and set a new Guinness World Record by shoveling back 64 oysters in three minutes. James attributed his win to having to gulp down his lunch during his busy workdays. Others, however, were more interested in the effect that this sudden onslaught of oysters had on James. Did these alleged aphrodisiacs set James into an amorous frenzy? "Well, put it this way," said James, "I think my wife may have a baby on the way."

For centuries, humans have believed that what they eat ­ be it oyster or crushed cockroaches ­ can affect their desire. "Aphrodisiacs are the bridge between gluttony and lust," says author Isabel Allende. In Aphrodite. A Memoir of the Senses, Allende chronicles a wide range of foods that are assumed to have aphrodisiac powers. There are the 'forbidden herbs', like anise, basil and cinnamon; the 'forbidden fruits', like apples, figs and grapes and delicious others, like tea, chocolate and honey. The power can lie in their odor, texture, shape or even name.

Some aphrodisiacs have been confirmed in the lab. Cooks have long used lavender, for instance, as an aphrodisiac highlight. Research by Chicago neurologist Dr. Alan Hirsch confirms that the scent of lavender, particularly when it is paired with a whiff of pumpkin pie, increases the sexual arousal of men by 40%.

Food can do more than titillate; it can improve your mood as well. They were well aware of this in the Middle Ages, using elderberries, quince and dates to ease depression. Lettuce, chicory and purslane were offered to reduce anxiety.

Much of the food-mood research focuses on serotonin, a neurotransmitter found throughout the nervous system. High carbohydrates and low protein increase the synthesis of serotonin in the brain. Tryptophan speeds the process along. Serotonin is best known for inducing calm and relaxation. Oysters, turkey, squids, banana, plum, clams and milk are all foods with strong serotonin links.

Many of us will gravitate to carbohydrate-rich foods ­ bread, pasta, and potatoes ­ when we are feeling down. People with seasonal affect disorder, premenstrual syndrome, perimenopause and nicotine withdrawal will also tend to dive into serotonin-boosting carbohydrates. Researchers find that dieters often get depressed two weeks into a low-carbohydrate diet because their serotonin levels are down.

Food can also bring us greater energy and motivation. High protein foods--like cottage cheese, yogurt, peas, eggs and nuts--help us move, think and respond more quickly. These proteins break down into amino acids, such as tyrosine, which are known to increase dopamine and the 'get up and go' norephinephrine.

Certain foods have built a particularly high mood profile. There is perhaps, no food whose mood-enhancing properties are as widely revered as chocolate. People have grabbed, shoved, even maimed for just one more bite of the cocoa. Plays, poems even best-selling books, like Joanne Harris' Chocolate, have been centred around this delectable treat. What child does not want a taste-tour of Charlie's Chocolate Factory? North Americans gobble through $700 million worth of chocolate in a week. This goddess of food is complex: chocolate contains thousands of chemical compounds.

Researchers at the University of Michigan think that it is chocolate's savory combination of calming sugar and cheery fat that makes it particularly irresistible. Chocolate is also home to phenylethylamine, the 'love drug' which releases energetically pleasing endorphins. With pulses racing and blood pressure ever so slightly up, the chocolate 'high' is compared to the exciting tingles of new romantic love.

It is not surprising, then, that chocolate can be the ultimate craving or a full-on addiction. Too much chocolate can overwhelm and nauseate. The organ-stimulating theobromines in chocolate mean that even two ounces can kill a dog.

Ice cream offers all the mood-lures of sugar, fat and milk. Add in the thrill of the frozen and it is not surprising that people are sneaking out of their beds for one last bite of very vanilla. Both chocolate and ice cream, however, offer relatively short-term sugar fixes. When you tumble down from your elated high, the natural temptation is to lunge for more, thereby trapping yourself in a relentless cycle.

Caffeine, or trimethylxanthine, is another influential mood stimulant. 50% of North Americans drink more than 300 mgs a day; that is equivalent to three of your average six ounce coffee cups or six cans of pop. A bit of caffeine--say one or two cups of coffee--can make you more alert and cheerful. Caffeine exerts its effects by binding to adenosine receptors, accelerating cells and increasing brain neural firing. The pituitary gland then assumes there must be an emergency and releases fight-or-flight adrenaline. Caffeine also increases dopamine, said to stimulate the brain's pleasure centres.

All this excitement can trigger a caffeine addiction as we reach for just one more cup. Too much caffeine can make you anxious, restless, unfocused and irritable. Given that half of the caffeine you consume will remain inside you for six hours, it can prevent deep sleep. Groggy and cranky, you will then feel the need for more caffeine in order to wake up.

Science cannot, however, explain all of our personal, quirky food-mood associations. Some foods affect our moods just because of our behavioural conditioning or our childhood associations. If you are lonely, you might crave banana pancakes because that is how your mother helped you to settle into Sunday morning. Paprika and squash may send you into a red rage because of a bad experience at camp.

Whatever your history, food can be a most powerful stimulant. How can you use food to your mood advantage?

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