Nutrition Series – Good Mood Food with Alice Mackintosh
20th February 2017
We caught up with Alice Mackintosh, Nutritional Therapist and co-author of The Happy Kitchen, a book that has taken the nutrition and wellbeing world’s by storm with it’s informative and practical guidance as well as easy-to-cook recipes on how to improve your mental wellbeing, performance and sleep. Alice is also the co-founder of Equi London, a supplement brand that is the perfect one-stop multivitamin and antidote to modern living. In addition, Alice’s see’s clients for one-to-one private consultations at her clinic in Chelsea.
1. Can you tell us a bit more about your book The Happy Kitchen and who it might be useful for?
One of the good things about the book is that there is something for everyone – though the title of the book is Good Mood Food, it isn’t just for those with depression or anxiety, but also those who want to improve their mental health and feel happy, energised, focused, sleep well and generally their best everyday. Rachel and I wanted to create a guide that was as user friendly as possible, without expensive, hard to find ingredients or overly complicated recipes.
Though The Happy Kitchen is essentially a cookbook, we also wanted to ensure that our recipes were backed up with good quality evidence, explaining why certain foods helped Rachel with different symptoms she experienced. Unlike many other cookbooks, rather than laying out the recipes according to meal type (meat, fish, main courses or drinks) we structured them according to symptoms. Specific recipes are categorised according to Boosting Energy, beating the blues, promoting calmness, mental clarity, hormonal peace and we also have a section for healthy comfort food. This means that even if you aren’t interested in the personal story or science, you can flick to find recipes that may help you feel better, with easy guides to the best ingredients to try and eat more of to help you feel better.
2. What factors might be contributing to low mood in the first place?
There are many reasons why we may not be feeling great mentally, and though we are all prone to the natural ebb and flow of mood as we have ups and downs in life, persistent low mood is an incredibly common issue. Twenty years ago the management of mental health disorders were all about what was happening in the brain – imbalances or deficiencies in serotonin (our happy hormone) seemed to be at the heart of the issue, which is why anti-depressants focused on modulating these brain hormones. Though serotonin is undoubtedly a factor, we are beginning to discover that is isn’t just about the brain anymore. Recent research has linked excessive inflammation in the body with low mood in some people; as well as changes to gut flora in our digestive systems correlating with increased risk of anxiety! Stress of course is also a contributing factor to anxiety and low mood, and poor sleep also effects how we feel mentally.
There are also certain vitamins and minerals that are needed to fuel our bodies and minds, and deficiencies in these (especially B vitamins, magnesium, zinc and vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin) may also be a contributing factor for some experiencing depression. Perhaps the most important nutrient for mood is omega 3 (found in oily fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel as well as walnuts, hemp seeds, green leafy veg), which studies show can help to support good mood. We carefully curate recipes that include all these essential nutrients in our recipes.
3. What are your top 5 foods for boosting mood and why?
Raw cacao for anxiety – Good news, as well as the taste of it making us feel good, chocolate can actually be good for our brains too. Sadly we don’t mean Dairy Milk here, instead real chocolate using at least 70% cacao, or raw cacao powder. Cacao is naturally rich in magnesium, a nutrient that is essential for good mental health and especially important for those suffering with stress and anxiety. Magnesium can help to improve our resilience to stress by supporting the adrenal glands, which can be relied upon heavily for the average person living a fast paced life in the city – working hard, exercising and travelling. Eat a portion of dark chocolate, and if you want to go the extra mile, invest in some raw cacao powder (around £5-£7 for 200g) and add it to smoothies, deserts, breakfast and snacks.
Turmeric for good mood – There is a lot of research currently going into the impacts that too much inflammation can have on the brain and it seems that for some people this may play a part in their mental illness. This is one of the reasons why we love to cook with turmeric. It’s anti-inflammatory properties in the body are well documented, and some research even shows how it may help reduce depressive tendencies. Make sure you add black pepper when cooking with it, as this helps to encourage absorption of the goodness into the body, and a little oil may also help this process.
Sauerkraut for stress – We are learning more and more about the links between the digestive system and the brain, so much so that this is now being referred to as our second brain. Good bacteria is key for healthy digestion, and some research has even shown that boosting the levels of this in the large intestine may support our mood, reduce anxiety and even reduce cortisol levels (our stress hormone). Sauerkraut and it’s Korean cousin kimchee are made by curing vegetables such as onions and cabbage which causes them to create prebiotics that support our own digestive systems. It can take around 1-2 months to really start colonising the gut with good gut flora, so be patient if you don’t notice results quickly and also be ware that those with IBS may struggle with these types of foods, and should speak to a nutritionist first about a better approach.
Green leafy vegetables for PMT – Green leafy vegetables (such as broccoli, spinach, chard and kale) are full of all kinds of mood supporting goodness, especially folic acid and magnesium. Folic acid is needed to help support our hormonal health and also aids the production of serotonin and dopamine, which can helps with PMT. Greens also contain b vitamins, which are needed throughout the brain to boost mood.
Oily fish for good mood – Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring and tuna are fantastic for the brain because they are rich in all-important omega 3 fatty acids. These are vital structurally for the brain (which is made up of 60% fats) helping it to communicate properly, as well as supporting the production of our neurotransmitters which govern everything from emotion, memory and concentration. These fats also help to reduce inflammation, which some research is showing may be present to a greater extend in some people with depression. Mackerel is great because it also contains less mercury than other oily fish such as salmon and tuna, which may benefit the brain further.
4. You also have a chapter focused on sleep in your book, what does this have to do with mood?
Sleep is essential for the entire body, and so of course poor sleep patterns will impact strongly on mood. Consistent poor sleep can put the body into stress mode, which can lead to imbalances in serotonin and dopamine as well as increased levels of anxiety. Many people also feel more tired therefore crave more sugar and caffeine to keep them awake, neither of which support mental health and can trigger negative eating cycles that leave the brain wanting more. I believe good quality sleep is paramount to good mental health, and we should prioritise getting 7-8 hours per night; or if you have children, a good lie in on weekends alongside relaxing holidays. It’s not always possible, but it’s certainly something we should keep in mind when we are feeling blue.
5. If someone followed the recommendations in your book, how soon might they start to notice a difference?
This will very much depend on the person, their previous diet, circumstances and symptoms but there is no doubt that alongside other strategies (including medication where necessary), getting the diet right is an essential element in someone’s journey towards better mental health. Rachel found that her symptoms began to improve within a matter of weeks, with gradual improvements having a knock on effect on mood. Her energy began to increase initially once she improved her iron intake and blood sugar balance. This meant she could do more exercise, which in turn improved her general outlook and helped her sleep better at night. Within 2 months she felt significantly less anxious and started to notice better digestion and her mental fog lifting. Her hormones took a little longer, but gradually this started to balance out and she found she had fewer ups and downs. Rachel also spoke regularly to her psychologist, and also practised mindfulness and meditation, which was an important part of her journey.
6. Which is your favourite recipe in the book?
That’s a tough question! It would have to be a toss up between our Omega 3 Kedgeree and my Choline Rich Scrambled Eggs. The kedgeree is so satisfying and the mix of spices, brown rice, melt in the mouth salmon and zingy yoghurt makes this diverse in flavour as much as nutritional goodness.
The scrambled eggs recipe in the book was one I refined over the course of a year, which sounds silly I realise but they really are the best scrambled eggs I’ve ever eaten! This is because I add the yolks towards the end of the cooking process, which makes the final result much more creamy and flavoursome. The brain loving choline in the eggs is also preserved better too which I find helps my memory and focus.
7. And if we were trying to boost our mood through options on the Squirrel menu then which dishes would you recommend?
A lot of the food on offer at Squirrel is solid brain food, another one of the reasons why I love coming to eat here so often and recommend my clients do so too! The Carroty Kid salad is excellent for digestive health with the addition of kimchee, and Prawn Star and Kale Yeah deliver zinc and omega 3 as well as folic acid, B6, magnesium and vitamins C which are essential nutrients to support mood and adrenal function.
I also love the turmeric tonic (Ging & Tonic) and the Reishi Cacao hot chocolate for warming winter drinks, and the Bright Eyed cold pressed green juice for a hit of magnesium, vitamin A/C and folic acid.
Follow Alice @alicemack Follow Equi London @equilondon