Holiday Health: The Food & Mood Connections

With the holidays ahead, it is an important time to take a closer look at the stress response, food and mood. The holidays, for many, can trigger stress and food behaviors that set off a cascade of hormones and neurochemicals.

The emotional stress that the holidays can elicit for many people, paired with the excess foods and libations that abound, can set us up for trouble. Understanding the neurochemical response to certain foods can help us better navigate our foods and mood this holiday season.


Many people complain about "holiday weight" gain. Not surprisingly, the week of New Year’s is the time of year that fitness clubs report their strongest upswing in membership. So is it possible to navigate the holiday season with less pudge, better sleep and less stress? Absolutely!

Over the past decade the topic of addictive food misuse has steadily become more prevalent in the media. With the obesity epidemic in our nation (approximately 37% of the U.S. adult population), the addictive, brain-chemical-altering effects of sugar, salt and high fat foods are important areas to understand and address. How have these foods affected us and kept us addicted to the substances in them that impact our mood and health?

In addition to considering key neurochemicals that certain foods can elicit, "comfort foods" can put the brakes on stress by affecting the glucocorticoid feedback system (HPA axis). Fats, for instance, can quell cortisol (a key stress hormone produced by the adrenal glands). Research supports that chronically elevated glucocorticoids can lead to the tendency for poor food choices (sugars and fats especially) and even drug seeking behaviors. With nearly two-thirds of Americans being overweight, the epidemic of food addiction resulting in metabolic issues is creating a health crisis. Solutions need to consider food intake, energy output and stress-reducing behavior modification.

A Spoonful of Sugar

Over the years, the medical community has gained a deeper understanding of dopamine and its relationship to food disorders, drug use, sexual addictions and ADD/ADHD. Foods signal pleasure through the substances that they contain, which set off a series of biological events in the body and brain. Three key areas of the brain that are activated and affected are the ventral tegmental area (VTA), the prefrontal cortex (PFC) and the nucleus accumbens (NAc). These areas of the brain are tied to motivation, reward and reinforcement learning. The VTA and NAc are all deep brain regions where dopamine is very active. One of the biggest triggers in brain dopamine is sugar. It is clear from the studies that glucose causes dopamine to double in certain areas of the brain. Sugar is a powerful substance that is in ample supply during the holidays!

The good news is that through novel testing, it is possible to gauge how the neuro-hormone system is running.

The conversation about food and pleasure-seeking behaviors would be shortchanged without considering the teenage brain as an example of how the brain can get "high-jacked." Teens are especially prone to dysregulated behaviors as their executive centers of the brain (PFC) are still in development. The teenage brain is dominated by the amygdala and the NAc (which is above a key dopamine center). This has been looked at as one physiological explanation for why teens are susceptible to unhealthy relationships with both food and drugs. This biological fact paired with our food environment, which has changed dramatically as companies “enhance” (to increase sales) and modify food (adding sugar which blasts dopamine), reveals a clear relationship for how the developing brain is susceptible to getting "hooked." So the earlier we intervene, the better.

The good news is that through novel testing, it is possible to gauge how the neuro-hormone system is running. The ability to look at dopamine levels, and importantly dopamine metabolite levels, can give indications of imbalances and offer clues to effective interventions.

Holiday Stress

We are wired to tolerate short bursts of stress. Excess levels, over long periods, can dysregulate neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, and hormones such as cortisol. The holidays for many can raise stress and impact the cortisol response. The HPA axis regulates the cortisol response and is the body’s biological attempt to modulate stress. Yet "switched on" for too long and we begin to store fat and negatively impact neurotransmitters and hormones.

In addition to effects that stress elicits on neurochemicals and hormones, calorie-laden and nutrient-light (high sugar, high “bad” fats) food choices disrupt balance as well. We are designed for small blasts of stress like running from a bear in the woods, hiding from lions or even hosting Thanksgiving! Chronic stress and exposure to stressors during the early years of life set the stage for a brain that can become wired for addiction to drugs, foods and behaviors. The fight-or-flight system, under constant demand, will disrupt the connection between the stress centers of the brain and the frontal lobe. Akin to a broken signal light at a busy intersection, having the brain on "red alert" constantly disrupts grey and white matter ratios in the brain and sets up potential lifelong patterns for addiction and mood disorders. The good news is that the brain is malleable and neuroplasticity is real. The brain can shift throughout life.

The Calm Turkey

We cannot discuss food and mood at this time of year without including our upcoming Thanksgiving turkey rituals. Tryptophan, an amino acid found in many foods, is often viewed as the source of our post-meal lethargy. It is true that turkey does contain an ample source of tryptophan (yet no more than other poultry). Therefore we cannot simply look to the turkey as the reason for the surge in post-meal calm. Likely it is the symphony of insulin and carbohydrates that assists the free form of tryptophan in making its way across our blood-brain barrier. Without the insulin blast from those mashed potatoes or pie, a small percentage of dietary tryptophan would be battling it out in the blood stream with other competitive amino acids trying to make their journey across the blood-brain barrier.

So if you want to get the post-dinner sleepy effect of that Thanksgiving turkey, eating some of those carbs may be just the thing to do. For individuals with metabolic issues it is not a simple equation and I am not proposing a high sugar diet to manage mood. Mindfully indulge in some potatoes with your Thanksgiving turkey, it will assist in the serotonin-bliss-state. But skip the sugary desserts that could set off a glycemic response.

This holiday season practice mental, physical and emotional hygiene by giving gratitude, breathing deeply, getting adequate rest, balancing work-life demands and taking time in nature to recharge your system. Remember that managing stress is proven to have lasting and positive effects on both neurotransmitters and hormones!

More About Neurotransmitters