Heal Your Angry Brain: Part 2 of 5

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

The Nutrition Connection

Matthew burst into my office with a handful of hard candy in his suit pocket and a scowl on his face.  He sat down and said, “I don’t have time for this, but my wife said she’d leave if I didn’t take anger management.”   Matthew grabbed a hard candy from his pocket and began to chew vigorously.  Over the sound of crunching I asked, “What have you eaten today?”  Matthew described a day driving from appointment to appointment with his only nourishment a mug of coffee and a fast food pastry.  “What does that have to do with anger?”  he asked.
Farmers' Market
Food is a basic ingredient in the formation of natural mood elevating brain chemicals like serotonin.  Serotonin deficiencies cause depression, anxiety, anger problems and eating disorders.  Neurons (brain cells) require food nutrients to make the chemical messengers that influence every system of the body.  Your emotions can instantly change depending on what you eat.  If you grab fast food, boxed, packaged, or processed food, you get a stimulating high from sugar, salt and fat.  Unfortunately a crash follows as your brain is starved of serotonin enhancing nutrients.  The crash causes food cravings that can lead to overeating, weight gain and irritability.

Anger floods the body with stress hormones that, over time, can prove harmful to heart health and other organ systems of the body.  When you start raging at the driver of the BMW that nearly ran you off the road, your heart races, digestion slows, blood rushes to your extremities and sugar floods your bloodstream.  Anger places demands on your body and brain, draining it of energy and resources.  When you don’t replenish with what author Michael Pollan calls, “real food”, the subsequent deficits dive bomb your mood.  This makes you more prone to anger, creating a chronic cycle of irritability and stress.  Matthew’s sugar and caffeine high leads to a crash, making self-control or anger management, nearly impossible to implement.

Real Food

It may sound obvious that you should eat real food, however our modern supermarkets appear dominated by boxed, packaged, processed food stuff largely stripped of its nutritional value.  A loaf of bread may contain calcium sulfate and a box of cereal, pyridoxine hydrochloride.  Not real food.  Michael Pollan, in his helpful book, In Defense of Food, suggests the following for optimal health:

  • Avoid food products containing ingredients that are A) unfamiliar, B) unpronounceable, C) more than five in number or that include D) high fructose corn syrup.
  • Avoid food products that make health claims.  You can take manure, add Omega-3’s to the nutritional label and pass it off as food.  It’s not real food just because they added some vitamins to it.
  • Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.  Typically fruits and vegetables, meat, dairy and fish, tend to hug the walls of the market.  All the boxed and packaged stuff dominates the center aisles.
  • Get out of the supermarket whenever possible.  Shop farmer’s markets where they don’t sell anything fake or processed and you get foods in season when it’s most nutritious.

I Can't Believe It's Not Butter Light label
Most nutritional guidelines suggest 5 to 9 servings of fruits and vegetables per day.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) published new nutritional guidelines last year.  They recommend that 3/4 of your plate consist of plant foods, beans, grains, vegetables and fruits.  The remaining 1/4 of the plate should have fish, meat, or other protein.  Biochemist and nutritionist, Dr. Laura Pawlak recommends 12 servings per day of plant foods.  A serving is 1/2 cup.  Eating this way stave’s off the angry mood of a serotonin starved brain.  Of course a good dose of fruits and veggies doesn’t have quite the kick of a double espresso energy drink.  Dr. Pawlak created a power drink recipe that serves as a great energy booster without the crash and burn of  a caffeine come-down.  This recipe comes from her book, Stop Gaining Weight:  Three No Nonsense Steps to No More Pounds:  Get an attitude, add power brakes, eat more food.   Of course diabetics and others on special medical diets should check with their doctor before trying anything new.

The Shake Brake Formula

banana, 1 large

pineapple juice, 1/2 cup

orange juice or strawberries, 1/2 cup

papaya, pulp of 1 papaya or 1/2 cup papaya nectar

flax oil, 1 to 3 tsp.

blend together and keep refrigerated.

This shake packs a wallop of nutrition giving your brain the food it needs to balance neurotransmitters like serotonin and GABA that help you reduce anger and stress reactions in your body.  Fill a thermos with your shake and sip on it throughout the day when you feel drained or need a pick-me-up.  The flax oil contains omega-3 polyunsaturated fats that provide your brain with serenity rich metabolites that lower hostility and improve brain health.  Our modern diet lacks a balance between omega-3’s, omega-6’s (most vegetable oils)and omega-9’s, (olive oil) from all the different kinds of fats we consume.  Most Americans don’t get enough of the omega-3’s, largely obtained from fish and flax seed.  Increasing real foods that contain omega-3’s can help your brain stay healthy and happy for life.  New research suggests just focusing our attention to healthy choices makes us more likely to choose good real food.  Now I think I need a little power brake.  Better practice what I preach and reach for the blender, not the coffee pot.

Photos courtesy of Natalie Maynor, ilovebutter, and bcmom.