Ever finish a long day of rehearsals feeling tired and hangry? You know… that the feeling of overwhelming hunger that leaves you ravenous, irritable, and, well, angry! Or, perhaps you’re feeling drained and burnt out.
The potential association between disordered eating and certain mood states like depression, fatigue, and confusion has been examined among dancers. Especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the mental health of the American youth is worsening, and the need for treatment surpasses what is available. But while the complexities of mental health span beyond this article, there is a large body of research examining the impact of what we eat on our moods.
The Hormonal Response
Serotonin and dopamine are two neurotransmitters both primarily associated with mood. Quick note: neurotransmitters are chemicals that communicate messages between the brain and body. Serotonin, which promotes calmness and regulates sleep, is made from the amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan is found in protein-rich foods like chicken, turkey, eggs, cheese, nuts, seeds, and soy products. Since carbohydrates enhance the body’s absorption of amino acids like tryptophan, adding carbohydrates to your meals and snacks is encouraged. Examples include whole grains like oats, legumes, whole fruits, and colorful veggies.
Dopamine is also a feel-good hormone known to improve energy, promote mental alertness, and even enhance physical movement. Dopamine has a direct impact on the pleasure and reward centers of the brain. This is the reason why we experience an acute sense of comfort while eating. And while some feel that this comforting sensation from food might parallel that of addiction, realize that dopamine production is also increased with activities like listening to music and laughing. Those aren’t addictive behaviors, right? Similar to serotonin, foods rich in protein provide the key amino acids needed for the production of dopamine.
Endorphins are another group of neurochemicals known to improve mood. They’re often associated with exercise and the reason why you feel a sense of joy after an incredible class or performance. Endorphins are even known to minimize levels of pain. In addition to exercise, fat also supports the production of endorphins and feelings of satisfaction during and between meals.
What If I’m An Emotional Eater?
Food is meant to elicit a positive emotional response. This is a biological mechanism that encourages the propriety of our species as we continuously seek nourishment for energy. But the cultural construct of what we know to be “emotional eating” creates a shift as we age: from enjoying a carefree treat as a child to worrying about a guilt-ridden indulgence as an adult.
Turning to food for comfort is normal and fighting this urge often leads to feelings of guilt and shame. This fuels the negative associations we often experience around what society considers “emotional eating.” Using food as a tool to cope with emotions like stress and sadness, however, won’t offer a long-term solution to underlying anxieties. Here’s an article that further breaks emotional eating and how you can build a better response to such emotions.
The Role of The Gut
Emerging research continues to associate gut health with mood. In fact, the gut microbiome is considered a “second brain” given its role in the central nervous system. Psychobiotics include probiotics and prebiotics that are specific to the production and delivery of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. These probiotics can be obtained from fermented foods like kefir, sauerkraut, and yogurt. To boost your gut health, learn more about probiotics here.
The Impact of Restrictive Eating
The biological and psychological consequences of skipping meals and restricting foods lead to feelings of deprivation and food guilt. Furthermore, disordered eating can elicit overwhelming feelings of stress around food. When under stress, the body amps the production of the hormone cortisol, among others, which stimulates cravings for higher-calorie foods. This is, again, is a biological reaction that prepares the body’s fight or flight response to potential danger (AKA stress). Working with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist is encouraged for dancers who feel stuck on a cycle of deprivation.
Additional Tips to Fuel A Better Mood
- Aim for consistent meals and snacks within a non-restrictive lifestyle to reduce overall stress and anxiety around mealtimes.
- Build meals and snacks upon a framework that includes complex carbs and protein to stabilize blood sugar and prompt the production of neurotransmitters.
- Incorporate sources of fats throughout your day to stabilize hormones and promote adequate production of endorphins. Examples include nuts, seeds, avocadoes, butter, oils, and fatty fish.
- Enjoy dark chocolate to boost the production of endorphins.
- When feasible, partake in stress-reducing activities.
- Get some sun (15 minutes per day is a recommendation). Emerging research supports the role of Vitamin D on improvements in mood.
Article written with help from student Caitlin Alfano. Expert edited and reviewed by Rachel Fine.