Space may be the final frontier but back on Earth the human body is still yielding up secrets, some of which may help us to get more balance into our lives.
The idea that food can affect your mood seems obvious, but this does not just mean the enjoyment that comes from digging into sticky toffee pudding. That fleeting fillip achieves nothing compared to the effect of habitually eating wisely. We now know that what you eat, when you eat it and how it is then processed by the body can affect your overall feeling of wellbeing – or otherwise.
So a nutritious diet won’t just support your physical health, it can also help you to feel better mentally and emotionally.
The key is to make sure that you are not missing out on any vitamins, minerals or good fats needed to keep you on an even keel. A deficiency in some B vitamins, for example, can manifest itself as feeling down, insomnia or confusion. A number of studies in recent years suggest that low levels of vitamin D in the blood is linked to low mood, according to the Vitamin D Council, a non-profit organisation in the United States. Likewise, zinc plays a part in modulating the brain's stress response.
But, rather than trying to second-guess which vitamin or mineral you might be lacking and then buying a supplement, it’s simpler to look at what you are eating regularly and see what improvement can be made there.
The case for eating a Mediterranean-style diet has been boosted following research conducted in 2012 at the Food and Mood Centre, a collaborative research centre led by Deakin University in Australia. Dieticians there saw positive results in one-third of participants in the study – all of whom had moderate to severe depression – after they were put on a Mediterranean diet for 12 weeks.
The participants were asked to cut back on processed food and to eat fish, unprocessed meat, olive oil, vegetables and nuts. Fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, the healthy fat found also in some nuts. A comprehensive review published in 2014 concludes that the use of omega-3 fats has been shown to be helpful for those with mild depression.
Sometimes that feeling of being down or lethargic can be a sign that you are getting too much sugar or simple carbohydrates. If your blood sugar is out of balance, you may crave sweets or carbs. After you have them, you get a little kick, but then the crash comes a few hours later. That feeling of extreme annoyance when you are hungry is just a symptom of low blood sugar.
How our bodies deal with food matters too. A study donecarried out at UCLA found that gut bacteria may significantly influence mood and brain function, backing up previous studies in this area. In August, scientists at the APC Microbiome Institute at University College Cork published research in the journal Microbiome which sheds light on how gut bacteria may influence behaviour around anxiety and fear. Our gut flora, with its tens of trillions of micro-organisms, is the final interior, if not frontier, given the new links to many aspects of health.
If you have ever taken a course of antibiotics, your good bacteria may be out of balance. That can be adjusted by adding probiotics to your diet.
What all this indicates is that those feeling low may find they can improve their general mood by doing the same with their diet. However, that is not to say that a better diet is a substitute for proper medical supervision.
What we have learned may not help us to push Norway off its top spot as the World's Happiest Country 2017, but it may help us to get over the worst of the winter's dark days.
So what can you do to help yourself feel better?
Eat a Mediterranean-style diet. This means getting five-seven servings of fresh fruit and vegetables per day as per the Department of Health’s new food pyramid. You should also have whole grains, peas and beans, a few nuts and extra virgin olive oil. Have some oily fish, such as salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines and trout, a few times a week. The omega-3 in such fish helps you to make and use serotonin in the brain. Having a little red meat and some dairy can help with vitamin B12. Dark green vegetables, beans and whole grains help with other B vitamins.
If you leave it too long between eating, the dip in blood sugar can cause some people to get remarkably cranky. It even has a name: hangry. That can be fixed by making sure you eat something small every couple of hours and that you don’t eat too many simple carbohydrates such as white rice, pasta or bread. Have a snack to keep your blood sugar even. This can be an apple and a few nuts – just something to take the edge off.
Nurture your good gut bacteria
The easy way to do this is to have some plain unflavoured “live natural” yoghurt. That means no added fruit flavours, sugar or sugar substitutes. The other way is to eat prebiotics, which good bacteria feed on, such as garlic, leeks, onions and cabbage.
Keep an eye on your alcohol intake
Drinking too much can lead to deficiencies in B vitamins, magnesium and zinc that bring you down. There is no need to give up, just be aware of quantity.
Get your vitamin D
Eat eggs, mushroom, oily fish and leafy greens. And get outside whenever the sun shows its nose.
Rose Costello is a journalist, health coach and instructor with Zest4Life.com