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Is your diet making you irritable?

it’s easy to dismiss irritability as a byproduct of stress or fatigue. But what if it’s more?

Let’s be honest. Somewhere between the advent of the Internet and the Apple watch, life got really hectic. In fact, most of us are doing our best just to keep up with daily life. Working longer hours, sleeping less, and eating poorly. It’s no wonder we’re on edge. Stress levels in North America are at an all-time high and it seems all we can talk about is how busy we are and ways to prevent burnout.
 
With life being so busy, it’s easy to dismiss irritability as a byproduct of stress or fatigue. But what if it’s more? What if the foods you eat are contributing to your short temper?
 
For thousands of years, people have believed in the power of food to influence health and well-being. From healing herbs to vitamins and minerals, there’s no lack of evidence when it comes to getting more of the good stuff. But what about the bad stuff? How does that affect us?
 
Getting rid of refined sugar

In recent years, we’ve heard a lot about the concerns of consuming highly refined sugars.  The Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada recommends that people eating an average 2000 calorie-a-day diet consume no more than 10% of that in added sugar (that equates to 48 grams or 12 teaspoons per day)1. To put that into perspective they state that one can of soda contains approximately 10 teaspoons of added sugar.1 Now we all know that too much sugar is bad for the waistline – but does it also impact our mental state? 
 
Consuming excessive sugar at one time can lead to high highs followed by low lows. This is because the sugars in chocolate cake for example, are simple carbohydrates. This means they are quickly converted into glucose in the bloodstream. This results in a blood sugar spike when a hormone called insulin kicks in, and moves the sugar (glucose) into the cells. This results in a dip in blood sugar. Fruits, vegetables and dairy products also contain simple carbohydrates but we don’t experience the same highs and lows after eating them because their fibre and protein content helps to slow down the conversion process.
 
All things fats

Dietary trans-fatty acids (dTFAs) are a type of fat found in partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils that may be present in foods such as baked goods made with shortening, potato or corn chips, deep fried foods and margarines2. These fats have long been linked to increases bad cholesterol levels. In recent years, there has been interest in learning about whether these fats also play a role in how we feel.  A study was published on nearly 1,000 men and women suggesting there is an association between higher dTFA intake and aggression and irritability3.
 
While more research is needed to further our understanding on how these fats affect our mood, it’s interesting to note that another fat, namely omega-3 fatty acids have been associated with having a positive impact on mood.4,5,6
 
The benefits of Omega-3

Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid, meaning we have to get them from the foods we eat because our bodies can’t produce them. Of  omega-3 fatty acids, there are 3 that stand out.

 

  • ALA (alpha-linolenic acid),
  • EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid)
  • DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)

 

ALA is found in greater quantities in green leafy vegetables and plant oils, including nuts and seeds such as walnuts and flaxseeds. While ALA is an omega-3 fatty acid, in order for it to provide the associated health benefits, it must be converted into the longer-chain EPA or DHA omega-3 fatty acids. Unfortunately, the human body isn't great at converting ALA. Studies show that we convert ALA into EPA and DHA at a rate of about 5%7,8.  This means that while foods like green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds are healthy foods and sources of ALA, they are not very efficient at providing EPA and DHA due to this limited conversion.

Direct sources of the omega-3 EPA and DHA include fish, seafood or algae.
 
Eat clean and supplement

When thinking about how food affects how we feel and our overall health, getting back to basics is always a good start. Eating a diet of whole foods rich in green leafy vegetables, protein and healthy fats over one high in refined foods, rich in sugar and bad fats can help combat fatigue and help you feel more focused and alert.

When we eat clean, we avoid the additives found in packaged foods. If you’re concerned about meeting your daily vitamin and mineral requirements, consider adding a multivitamin to your diet. To ensure you’re getting healthy fats, you can add more omega-3 fatty acids to your diet in the form of a fish or algal oil supplement.

Making small changes can go a long way in how you feel. As always, when making changes to your diet or before taking any natural dietary supplement be sure to work with your health care practitioner.

  1. Heart&StrokeFoundationofCanada. Health Seekers  - What is Sugar. 2017  [cited 2017 May 4th ]; Available from: http://www.heartandstroke.ca/get-healthy/healthy-eating/reduce-sugar.
  2. MayoClinic. Trans fat is double trouble for your heart health. 2017  [cited 2017 May 5th ]; Available from: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/high-blood-cholesterol/in-depth/trans-fat/art-20046114.
  3. Golomb, B.A., et al., Trans fat consumption and aggression. PLoS One, 2012. 7(3): p. e32175.
  4. Sublette, M.E., et al., Meta-analysis of the effects of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) in clinical trials in depression. J Clin Psychiatry, 2011. 72(12): p. 1577-84.
  5. Li, F., X. Liu, and D. Zhang, Fish consumption and risk of depression: a meta-analysis. J Epidemiol Community Health, 2016. 70(3): p. 299-304.
  6. Hoffmire, C.A., et al., Associations between omega-3 poly-unsaturated fatty acids from fish consumption and severity of depressive symptoms: an analysis of the 2005-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids, 2012. 86(4-5): p. 155-60.
  7. Plourde, M. and S.C. Cunnane, Extremely limited synthesis of long chain polyunsaturates in adults: implications for their dietary essentiality and use as supplements. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab, 2007. 32(4): p. 619-34.
  8. Brenna, J.T., Efficiency of conversion of alpha-linolenic acid to long chain n-3 fatty acids in man. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care, 2002. 5(2): p. 127-32.