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Mood Food: Hangry Hacks

Mood Food: Hangry Hacks

The word “Hangry” was actually added to the English Dictionary in 2018, describing someone who suffers from “bad temper and irritability as a result of lack of food”. In actual fact, that very unique feeling of spontaneous irritability at nearly every small mis-step has probably been experienced by nearly every living person, and likely on fairly frequent occasions, and can turn even the most sweet-tempered of individuals into raging dragons. 

Eating when you’re hungry is obviously key to avoid hunger pangs, but your actual food choices can also have a huge difference on your mood. But why does hunger, or more accurately, a lack of nutritious food (even without actual, felt hunger) cause this downward transition from angel to ogre?

The mechanism at play is similar to that of when we feel less patient and more reactive when we’ve had a poor night’s sleep. Just as losing a few hours of sleep can make us feel anxious, hyper-reactive and irritable, so can skipping a meal - or choosing the wrong type. Each of us is unique and some may suffer from emotional disturbances as a result of lack of proper nourishment more than others, but on a physical level, the mechanisms are fairly similar. When we are under-nourished - or do not choose a balanced meal (more on “balanced meals” below), our blood sugar may drop.

When we experience a drop in blood sugar, our stress hormone - cortisol - springs into action, engaging our sympathetic nervous system, otherwise known as our “fight or flight” response. Historically, this would have kicked us into action to hunt for food. Adrenaline would increase your heart rate, constrict your blood vessels to elevate your blood pressure, and boost overall energy. Cortisol, in tandem, triggers the release of stored glucose (glycogen - effectively sugar) into your bloodstream for energy (for hunting, and in case you need to run from a threat)  and elevates the glucose uptake in the brain so that we’re hyper-vigilant to our surroundings. In the modern day world, these same stress hormones are rapidly released into our system, engaging our urge to fight (or run), but there isn’t (necessarily) a threat - and these hormones have nowhere to go - except on our unsuspecting victims… Consequentially, they are not used up as they would be should we engage in battle (or hunt) and they remain in our system for longer - and we, too, feel hyper-sensitive to our surroundings, hyper-conscious of the slightest mishap, anxious - and “hangry”.

With regard to sleep, a lack of sleep also triggers this same stress response, but in tandem, dysregulates the balance of leptin and ghrelin - our satiety / hunger hormones - promoting food-finding behaviours (otherwise known as snacking!), especially for high-energy (white, refined, sugar and calorie dense) foods - leading to overeating.

But fear not, there are some simple tips you can follow to halt the descent from angel to ogre!

4 Ways to Cope with Stress:

Stress is inevitable in modern life, and to an extent, is good for us; stressors allow us to experience, to learn and to adapt, to become better, stronger - and healthier, when we adapt in beneficial ways - versions of ourself.

However, our daily lifestyle has a profound, and wholly under-estimated effect, on our ability to withstand stress.   When we are under pressure, we often experience a viscous cycle wherein we make poor food and lifestyle choices, which ultimately worsens our situation further. Poor food choices, not taking time out to relax or spend with family and friends, and lack of exercise has a deleterious effect on our health - actually making us more prone to experience stress in the first place, less able to cope with stress when it arises,, and more likely to suffer from illness as a result - both psychological and physical.

When we are stressed, or better yet, preemptively when we expect to find ourselves under more pressure, it’s key to be even more mindful of the daily choices that we make.

4 ways in which we can set ourselves up for success include:

Nourish to Flourish:

Research has shown that minimally processed, (mainly) plant-based diets have a protective affect on our nervous system and help to minimise stress-related illnesses like anxiety and depression. This isn’t to say we should all turn vegan - indeed, consumption of oily fish, like that found in the Mediterranean diet, is protective in itself - but it is to say that the majority of our plates should comprise fruits and vegetables. We should be mindful of ensuring we eat plenty of fresh fruit, non-starchy vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and lean protein. Think tri-coloured plates of rainbow produce to ensure you’re maxing out on your nutrients. And don’t forget your nervous system-calming B-vitamins (avocados, beans and legumes) and Magnesium (green leafy vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, seeds), which help promote balanced neurotransmitter synthesis.

Increase Your Happy Hormones:

Exercise, in its various forms, is a tonic - for both body and mind. Not only does it help to keep us in a fit and healthy physical state, but it is one of the most powerful natural anti-anxieties and antidepressants out there. When we exercise, we release a plethora of “feel good” chemicals like endorphins, dopamine, GABA, adrenaline and endocannabinoids, which make us feel more confident, more capable, less stressed and anxious, and all around happier. Furthermore, exercise can influence thousands of genes relating to overall good health, and research suggests may increase the size of the the region of the brain called the hippocampus, helping ease anxiety and stress.

That said, just 30-minutes of moderate daily activity really can have huge impact on your mood (and overall health and wellbeing). So when you’re feeling stressed, or expecting more pressure, be more mindful of prioritising active movement, whether that be hopping over to the local pool (or lido!),  turning on a yoga / pilates / dance video in your living room, or simply engaging in some brisk outdoors walking.

Embrace the Inner Hippy:

Once considered “alternative”, mind-body practises like yoga and meditation are now mainstream and even utilised in various medical settings. Engaging in intentional movement and breath work (concentrating on your movements / breathing, and the feeling of your body throughout) have been found to reduce the symptoms of stress, including associated illness such as anxiety and depression, and to be a protective factor, increasing resilience in the first place. In fact, research has found that such activities can activate brain structures involved in thinking, feeling, and behaviour, indicating that attentional strategies like yoga and breathwork can be used as a tool to help manage thoughts, moods, and reaction to / experience of stress.

That said, next time you feel stressed, turn on a yoga or meditation video, or simply engage in some box breathing (breathe in 4-secs, hold 4-secs, out 4-sec, in 4-secs > Repeat), to calm and quit the nervous system

Prioritise the Zzzzs

I know we’ve all heard the importance of sleep, but we often fail to realise how much of a profound impact sleep has on our health and wellbeing. Research has found that for most adults, 7-8 hours sleep is the optimal amount; less than this compounds our experience of stress, and is  associated not only with increased likelihood of anxiety and depression, but worsened ability to cope with stress and less resilience to stress in general - meaning we’re more likely to perceive and suffer from stress and stress-related conditions such as burnout. Furthermore, using an alarm clock has actually be found to increase cortisol - your stress hormone - by 50%, so consider using a wake-up light lamp which gradually emit light for a set period of time (usually around 30-minutes) to simulate a natural sunrise and wake you up gently, without spiking your stress.

Is Your Coffee Making You More Stressed?

Although coffee has a plethora or benefits, including helping us stay alert, supporting us during exercise, and does contain a number of beneficial compounds such as antioxidants, research has found that intake of more than 400mg caffeine daily (equal to around 3-4 cups coffee - or just a few strong coffees!) can have a deleterious effect on our health. And tea drinkers, it’s wise to remember black tea also contains caffeine!

High amounts of caffeine elevates our stress hormone, cortisol, mimicking the impact of chronic stress both physically and psychologically. It also sensitises our sympathetic nervous system - our stress response which enables us to mobilise for an attack - meaning we have a lower threshold to tolerate stressors and are more prone to experience stress in the first place.  That said, when we drink caffeine-containing beverages, whether that be coffee, tea or a stimulant drink, although we may feel on top of the world (for a short time!) our body perceives this as an outside attack. Some may experience this as palpitations and anxiety; others poor digestion, bloating and diarrhoea; and yet others may experience apparently removed symptoms such as sore joints and other inflammatory conditions.

When you’re under the cosh, experiencing active stress or expecting pressure to increase, rather than reaching for your daily brew or another stimulant drink, consider opting for green tea, which contains nervous-system calming L-theanine. Amongst various properties, L-Theanine increases our nervous-system calming neurotransmitter GABA whilst also promoting focus and attention, and research has found that just 2-cups of green tea daily can lower the stress hormone cortisol and improve relaxation. That said, green tea is a great choice when we need to concentrate without incurring the potential negative impact of other caffeinated beverages.

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