Feeling kinda funky these days? Isn’t everyone? If so then perhaps we need to pay attention to what we feed our bodies so they will respond well to the added stress that just about everyone on the planet is under. As we all know a nutritious diet can counteract stress, bolster the immune system and lower blood pressure as well as make you feel good and look younger.
Feeling calmer and less stressful can be achieved through diet in several ways. Complex Carbs, like oatmeal actually boost serotonin levels. Serotonin is a hormone that acts both as a chemical messenger, a neurotransmitter that transmits nerve signals between nerve cells. Changes in serotonin levels in the brain can alter mood. Low levels s of serotonin will cause people to suffer from depression, sleep disorders, and various addictions. Some overweight people with low levels of serotonin feel almost compelled to eat more. Once they get their carbohydrate "fix", serotonin levels rise and they feel (temporarily) better again.
Nicotine also increases serotonin levels - a true form of self-medication. Nicotine withdrawal has the opposite effect. This is one reason why people who quit smoking find that they rapidly gain weight. They're trying to get their serotonin "fix" from food instead of cigarettes. Bummer.
Interestingly, Dr. Albert Stunkard, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks that people with an almost uncontrollable urge to raid the fridge late at night are doing it to help themselves sleep by boosting serotonin levels.
If you've ever wondered why dieting affects your mood, low serotonin levels could be the explanation. The food you eat has the potential to raise or lower your serotonin levels. That's why the ingredients of a meal have such a powerful impact on the way you feel after you eat it. Other foods can reduce the levels of stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol that can impact the body over time as well.
“Eating a heart healthy diet - high in fiber and low in saturated fat - is a great place to start to boost your mood. There isn’t any question about it, says Diane M. Becker MPH, ScD, director of the Center for Health Promotion at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Conversely, “a high-fat, high-glycemic load meal can make you physically feel dysfunction in your body. People who eat this type of meal tend to feel bad and sleepy afterwards,” she says.
THE GROOVIEST FOODS
Note: During my research for this article I found that a few foods kept coming up on every “feel good food list” they the first six below.
SPINACH - Popeye never lets stress get the best of him – maybe it’s all the magnesium in his spinach. Magnesium helps regulate cortisol levels and tends to get depleted when we’re under pressure. Too little magnesium may trigger headaches and fatigue, compounding the effects of stress. One cup of spinach goes a long way toward replenishing magnesium stores. One serving of these leafy greens is loaded with fiber, calcium, and virtually your entire day's recommended dosage of beta carotene, a nutrient vital for immune-system health, good vision. If you can't stand spinach plain, Katherine Tallmadge, R.D., author of Diet Simple, suggests dropping it into burritos, pasta dishes and canned soup.
SALMON is densely stuffed with omega-3. Dr. Oz says that omega-3 fatty acids are one of the most important nutrients to keep your cerebral power lines strong. Research shows that Omega-3s actually slow cognitive decline, remove plaque from your arteries, and improve function of your neurotransmitters. The fatty acids in Salmon are thought to slow memory loss as you age and boost heart health by regulating heart rhythms and keeping arteries and veins supple and free of blockages. While saturated fats lead to obesity, the polyunsaturated fatty acids in fish appear to correct and prevent obesity, according to a study published in Clinical Science. It is also an excellent source of protein. Besides helping stimulate your metabolism three to four times more than carbs or fat, protein is the absolute best food for helping fill you up, so you take in fewer calories and burn more. Several recent studies have also suggested that people have a lower risk of having symptoms of depression if they eat a lot of fish, particularly fatty fish like salmon.
BLUEBERRIES - Of all the fruit you can eat, blueberries may be the absolute best- blueberries pack more fiber, vitamins, and minerals per ounce than any other fruit in the produce aisle. Research in animals shows that blueberries help protect the brain from oxidative stress and may reduce the effects of age-related conditions such as Alzheimer's disease or dementia. Studies also show that diets rich in blueberries significantly improved both the learning capacity and motor skills of aging rats, making them mentally equivalent to much younger rats. The Agricultural Research Service funded a study that found antioxidant compounds (tannins and anthocyanins) in blueberries which reverse existing short-term memory losses. They are considered the ultimate immune-boosting food-rich in -radical-fighting antioxidants. Free radicals, which increase in number as you get older, travel around your body damaging cells, promoting disease, and triggering signs of premature aging. Those same antioxidants that fight disease are also effective in helping keep connections between cells in your brain and nervous system healthy, ensuring clearer, quicker thinking and the best memory possible.
AVOCADOS - One of the best ways to reduce high blood pressure is to get enough potassium -- and half an avocado has more potassium than a medium-sized banana. Avocados can also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and enhance blood flow, offering a simple, tasty way to fire up brain cells. In addition, guacamole offers a nutritious alternative when stress has you craving a high-fat treat.
COMPLEX CARBS - Because all carbs prompt the brain to make more serotonin, it is best to eat complex carbs which are digested more slowly and supply the brain with steady source of this feel good chemical. (White flour doesn't just rob you of fiber and protein; it also digests incredibly quickly in the body, giving you a rapid spike of energy-but one that comes crashing down just as fast. Over time, those spikes in insulin production wear on the body, damaging cells and promoting excess storage of fat. Remember the motto “No white food.”)
Foods such as whole grain breakfast cereals, breads, pastas and oatmeal are best and also keep blood sugars balanced and a smoothly moving Gastrointestinal (GI) tract which will also keep you feeling well. When it comes to eating breakfast in the morning, there's nothing better than a bowl of oatmeal to spike your energy levels and provide you with an hours-long supply of fuel. Oatmeal is also filled with stress-fighting and immunity-boosting zinc. It can also help promote weight loss and lower your risk of heart disease and is filled with high levels of soluble fiber that protect your heart and arteries by trapping and expelling cholesterol, dropping levels by up to 30 points or more in some cases. Stick with the big tub of instant oatmeal and add your own fruit and calorie-free sweeteners, if you need them.
ALMONDS are chock full of helpful vitamins. There’s vitamin E to bolster the immune system, plus a range of B vitamins, which may make the body more resilient during bouts of stress. Also high in protein, fiber, almonds are great for your heart, digestive system, and skin. Although they're also loaded with healthy unsaturated fats, some people avoid them because they're so calorie-dense. But that's a mistake. Gary Fraser, Ph.D., a professor of medicine at Loma Linda University in California, studied folks who added two ounces of almonds to their diet on a regular basis. Turns out they had no significant weight change. "Since nuts are such a hard food, it appears that a significant amount of their calories are never absorbed into the body," he says.
FRUITS AND VEGGIES are packed with key nutrients and antioxidant phytochemicals, which directly contribute to your health and health-related quality of life. In a one study, eating two more servings of fruits and vegetables a day was associated with an 11% higher likelihood of good functional health. People who ate the highest amount of fruits and vegetables felt better about their health. Here are some interesting facts on some of our faves;
BROCCOLI guards against cancer and is rich in a wide range of anti-oxidants, vitamins C and E, folate and iron.
CARROTS are high in carotenes, known to boost the immune system.
LETTUCE AND SALAD GREENS Tangy varieties, such as chicory and endive, stimulate the liver, making them great detoxifiers. Most lettuces contain valuable amounts of vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants.
GRAPEFRUIT has immune-boosting, antiseptic, wound-healing and anti-bacterial properties.
GARLIC strengthens the heart and blood, and has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral properties. Also thought to help lower blood pressure. A key ingredient is allicin, which has cancer-fighting potential.
CRANBERRIES are best known for helping to prevent and treat urinary tract infections, especially cystitis, in women. They have both anti-fungal and antiviral properties.
GINGER stimulates the immune system and circulation.
BROCCOLI is rich with a healthy supply of iron, calcium, fiber, and vitamin C, meaning it's good for the circulatory system, bones, and fighting colds.
TOMATOES Yes, it's true that tomatoes used to be called "love apples" and have a reputation as a powerful aphrodisiac. Tomatoes have lycopene. This powerful antioxidant, which comes from the pigment that gives tomatoes their red color, may actually help fight off a number of diseases and ailments. Tomatoes are also that rare food that's more nutritious when cooked than when eaten raw. "Lycopene becomes more bio-available to the body after it's been heated," says nutritionist David Ricketts.
PINEAPPLE is the only food with natural bromelain (an enzyme group that aids digestion, reduces inflammation and swelling, and speeds healing). These enzymes are helpful for muscle and joint injuries, gout, and arthritis. Note: Cooking pineapple deactivates the bromelain.
ZUCCHINI ChefMD ® says that zucchini helps fight age-related macular degeneration (the most common form of blindness in people 55 and older). The National Eye Institute found that a high intake of lutein significantly reduces the risk of macular degeneration. Zucchini is packed with lutein to help you protect your vision before age takes its toll.
ORANGES make the list for their wealth of vitamin C. Studies suggest this vitamin can reduce levels of stress hormones while strengthening the immune system. If you have a particularly stressful event coming up, you may want to consider supplements. In one study, blood pressure and cortisol levels returned to normal more quickly when people took 3,000 milligrams of vitamin C before a stressful task.
CHOCOLATE Yeah baby, dark chocolate. A University of Nottingham professor found that drinking cocoa drinks rich in flavanols improves blood flow to key areas of the brain for two to three hours. Flavanols in the cocoa drink are a key ingredient of dark chocolate. Professor Macdonald’s study also suggested that cocoa flavanols in chocolate may enhance brain function to help fight sleep deprivation, fatigue, and the effects of aging. “Small amounts of dark chocolate can be a physical upper,” says Becker at Johns Hopkins. “Dark chocolate has an effect on the levels of brain endorphins,” those feel-good chemicals that our bodies produce. Not only that, but dark chocolate also seems to have a heart-healthy anti-clogging effect in our blood vessels. In one study from the Netherlands, Dutch men who ate 1/3 of a chocolate bar each day had lower levels of blood pressure and lower rates of heart disease. The chocolate also boosted their general sense of well-being.
This was the good news, now here is the bad:
Cut back on your sugar intake. Most people don't realize the toll sugar takes on their appearance. "Sugar is responsible for nearly half of all skin aging, because it inhibits the effectiveness of collagen within your skin cells," says Nicholas Perricone, M.D., adjunct professor at the College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University and author of The Wrinkle Cure. Excess sugar in your system binds with collagen, causing a chemical change called glycosylation. Ideally, collagen molecules slide easily over each other, giving the skin a soft, elastic look. After being attacked by sugar, the collagen fibers become cross-linked and stick to each other, resulting in sagging and wrinkled skin. Glycosylation can also cause age spots and discolored marks on the skin by overworking melanocytes, the cells that provide pigment.
Avoiding sweets is a must, but identifying hidden forms of sugar is even more important. "Try to stay away from foods that are higher on the glycemic index, such as corn, bananas, potatoes and peas," says Perricone. Instead, eat more foods that are low on the glycemic index, such as kiwi, blueberries, peaches, leafy greens, broccoli and spinach. "These types of fruits and vegetables deliver sugar into your system at a slower rate, since they're also packed with fiber. They're also rich in antioxidants that help eliminate free radicals and reduce inflammation in the skin. Left unchecked, [free radicals] can lead to heart disease, cancer, diabetes, a weakened immune system and other health issues."
Switch from coffee to tea. Coffee raises cortisol levels for 12 to 14 hours. "Too much cortisol in the system is toxic to brain cells, thins your skin, decalcifies your bones, and suppresses your immune system," explains Perricone. Cortisol also kicks up insulin levels by raising your blood sugar, encouraging the storage of excess calories as fat. "Making the switch has been proven to show an average weight loss of up to eight pounds in just six weeks," says Perricon - and that's if no other change, such as beginning a workout program, is implemented during the same period.
Actually, caffeine is not the culprit, but rather the organic acids found in coffee that causes cortisol levels to skyrocket. Switching to tea, whether caffeinated or decaffeinated, can curtail cortisol release and insulin spike while keeping you healthy minus the withdrawal symptoms. Black Tea research suggests black tea can help you recover from stressful events more quickly. One study compared people who drank four cups of tea daily for 6 weeks with people who drank a tea-like placebo. The real tea drinkers reported feeling calmer and had lower levels of cortisol after stressful situations.
Now we have the key ingredients for a recipe to make us feel and look calmer, younger and dare I say it, groovy!
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