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Healthy Mind, Healthy Body: Mood, Food, and Attitude

» Mental Health Library » Disorders & Conditions » Major Depressive Disorder » Featured Article

By Becki A Hein, MS, NCC, LPC

Becki A Hein, MS, NCC, LPC

When asked about the best way to stay healthy, you might say that diet and exercise are essential. You also might say that taking vitamins and certain herbs can enhance health and well being. You could even suggest activities such as meditation and yoga. However, another very important component to health that more and more people are learning about is the mind-body connection. Your thoughts and feelings influence your body through the nervous system and the circulatory system. Your body responds to the way you think, feel, and act. Scientists are discovering that every thought, emotion, and experience influences the immune system's ability to function. So, in order to maximize your body's ability to stay healthy, your ideal regimen would need to include a plan for healthy diet, physical and mental exercise, and encouraging positive emotions. You could call it your mood, food, and attitude plan.

Adjust Your Mood

Emotions such as joy, happiness, and optimism tend to boost immune system function while negative emotions such as depression, sadness, and pessimism tend to suppress immune function. Richard Davidson, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin, led a study in which electrical brain activity was measured in people as they wrote about the best and worst experiences of their lives. Their best experience was to be an event when they had experienced "intense happiness or joy," and their worst experience was to have been when they felt "intense sadness, fear, or anger." After the writing task, the subjects were given flu shots and their antibody levels were measured. The results showed that the people whose brains exhibited the strong electrical brain activity associated with positive emotions had a large increase in antibodies, thereby boosting their immune systems.

Fortunately, there are many ways to improve your mood. You CAN learn to increase your level of contentment and happiness. The following are concrete suggestions for shifting into a positive emotional state:

  • Exercise your body: Just ten minutes of moderate exercise has been found to be enough to improve overall mood, as well as increase energy and decrease fatigue.
  • Exercise your mind: Read interesting books, play games, do puzzles, listen to music, watch a really funny program on television.
  • Expose yourself to light: Spend time outdoors, especially in the early morning. Use full-spectrum light bulbs that have the same rays as the sun. This will help decrease production of melatonin, which induces low energy and sleepiness.
  • Experiment with aromatherapy: Several studies have shown that pleasant fragrances can improve mood in both women and men. Feelings of depression, tension, and confusion were significantly relieved by pleasant odors. The scent of orange and lavender reduced anxiety and improved mood in dental patients in another study.
  • Learn to focus your attention on what you want, not what you don't want: For example, instead of thinking "I hope I don't catch the flu," say to yourself "I'm doing everything I can to stay healthy." Your brain and body are listening to you all the time and are more than ready to respond to your thoughts and words.
  • Be around other people who are happy and upbeat: Spend as little time as possible around people who are chronically negative. Moods can be "contagious," so catch a "good" one from someone who is happy.
  • Volunteer to help someone else: Reaching out to others and focusing your attention somewhere other than your own ruminating thoughts can be very fulfilling and uplifting.

Adjust Your Food

The foods you eat can affect your mood, at least temporarily. Your brain uses chemicals called neurotransmitters to communicate between nerve cells. The neurotransmitters which are most sensitive to diet are serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine.

Serotonin causes you to feel relaxed and optimistic, and helps you to focus and concentrate. Not having enough serotonin can result in depressed mood, poor concentration, sleep problems, and food cravings. To raise serotonin levels, eat food high in carbohydrates, such as bread and pasta.

Dopamine and norepinephrine cause you to feel alert, excited, and mentally sharp. Low levels of dopamine and norepinephrine result in depressed mood, fatigue, and poor concentration. Too much of these neurotransmitters can cause anxiety. Low fat, high protein foods such as tuna, lean beef, turkey, cottage cheese, and yogurt will help increase levels of dopamine and norepinephrine.

Here are additional suggestions for modifying moods with foods:

  • Chocolate is more than just heaven for the taste buds! Phenylethylamine is a substance found in chocolate which releases endorphins in your body, which along with the fat and sugar, raise both serotonin and endorphin levels and leave you feeling wonderful.
  • You can curb wild mood swings by making sure you drink plenty of water. Emotional stability can be affected by dehydration.
  • If you are feeling nervous or anxious, try eating something rich in calcium, such as almonds, or skim milk. Calcium is effective for reducing anxiety and making you feel calm and relaxed.
  • Have some fish, vegetables, or nuts if you are feeling irritable. Foods like these have selenium, which is effective for calming irritability.
  • Pectin, which is found in grapefruit, grapes, and carrots, helps calm your body and return your heart rate, blood pressure, and adrenaline to normal levels if you have been feeling angry.

Adjust Your Attitude

There is growing evidence that deeper positive attitudes such as gratitude and optimism lead to improved ability to fight disease and to longer survival time for people who are already battling life-threatening illnesses. Dr. Michael McCollough, of Southern Methodist University and Dr. Robert Emmons, from the University of California conducted a study in which several hundred people in three different groups kept daily journals. The first group recorded just the events of the day. The second group wrote down their unpleasant experiences. The final group wrote a daily list of things for which they felt grateful.

The results indicated that the group focusing on gratitude experienced less depression and stress, felt more optimism and enthusiasm, exercised more often, felt inspired to help other people more often, and made more progress toward personal goals, all of which have been previously shown to improve health. Researchers at the HeartMath Institute in Boulder Creek, California have found that consciously experiencing appreciation stimulates changes in the body which helped lower stress and blood pressure, leading to a healthier heart and body.

The evidence so far strongly suggests that being grateful and optimistic can improve your physical health. It sure can't hurt and it could even help! With a little effort you can train your brain to think gratefully and optimistically:

  • Keep a gratitude journal: Every night before you go to sleep, write down five things from the day for which you are thankful. Try not to repeat items from one day to the next. Stay with it even if it is hard to think of anything to be thankful for. Even little things like socks that match will work to stimulate positive thinking.
  • Join a support group: Being around other people in a safe and supportive environment can allow you to feel your emotions, express yourself, and learn new coping methods. Positive social interaction helps you learn to become more aware of things in life to appreciate.
  • Set positive goals. Start small if you have to and set them in positive terms. Be specific and realistic. Even if your first goal is to smile for one minute straight every day, no matter what, that's a start! Your successes will start a cycle of improved self esteem and increased positive attitude.

Isn't it great to know that you do have some control over becoming and staying healthy?! Start using your mood, food, and attitude to your positive benefit.

About the Author...

Becki Hein is a licensed professional counselor / therapist in Allen, Texas and provides counseling services to clients in the Collin and Dallas county areas. She specializes in helping people create peace, joy, and purpose in their lives.

Last Update: 12/8/2006

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