Food can improve our moods when eating habits help us maintain a healthy blood sugar level - not too high, not too low. We've all experienced the fatigue and irritability that can result from being hungry, and the sleepy overstuffed feeling of eating too much.
People sensitive to blood sugar ups-and-downs often find that eating five or six small meals a day helps them feel more alert and cheerful than three larger meals.
A general recommendation is to eat high-protein meals and snacks when we need to be alert, and complex carbohydrates when we want to relax. Heart-healthy foods should be the focus of our diets.
Although we are a country of plenty, many people have marginal intakes of important nutrients. Several neurotransmitters (the chemicals that allow nerve cells in the brain to communicate with each other and other cells) are manufactured from dietary components.
Serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and acetylcholine are some examples. Amino acids (contained in proteins), B vitamins, vitamin C and several minerals are important in the manufacturing of these neurotransmitters.
Probably the worst culprit for mood disturbance is the very low-calorie diet. While some dieters experience a temporary euphoria, over time food cravings develop, along with fatigue, depression and irritability. Food cravings can lead to binging, frustration and an increasing obsession with food intake and appetite.
While we think of them as part of our diet, caffeinated and alcoholic beverages actually are drugs that have strong effects on mood. That's why they are so popular. While a small amount of these substances appears to be safe for most people, larger amounts lead to negative health effects and even interfere with the original good mood produced by the first cup or glass.
One or two servings of a caffeinated beverage can provide an uplift, but too much caffeine makes us nervous and anxious, and can lead to sleep disturbances. Too much alcohol makes us tired, irritable, stressed and inebriated.
While most Americans are led to believe that we should wake up in the morning full of high energy that lasts until evening, most of us find we have fairly predictable energy highs and lows throughout the day. Instead of fighting energy rhythms with too many cups of coffee, we need to accept the fact that energy levels vary. We need to use exercise - a short, five-minute walk - rather than caffeine during the day when we need more energy.
Chronic low-grade dehydration also is a common cause of fatigue. Drink eight to 10 glasses of water a day; more when exercising.
"R and R" is very obvious but is often overlooked. We need rest and relaxation to stay healthy and maintain our stress resistance. A good night's sleep almost every night is a must. So are activities that allow us to relax and have fun.
A good mood is best achieved by making all of these recommendations "user-friendly." In other words, if we're up half the night because of a special celebration with friends, a stress-resistant lifestyle will carry us through the day until we can catch up on our rest tomorrow.
Jeanne Rhodes is a nutritionist, wellness consultant, author and director of Rhodes Preventive Health in Hagerstown.